India is noted not only for being the world’s largest democracy but also a chaotic one and it seems like this chaos has penetrated almost all levels of policy-making in the country. Analysts and policy wonks who have long been advocating for a push on the long overdue resurge in economic reform movement have been left disappointed. Recently, chief economic advisor, Kaushik Basu, suggested that we should not expect reforms until after the next elections in 2014, though he later said that he had been misquoted.
One would be even more disillusioned if one noted the slipshod pattern of India’s foreign policy that has been exercised in the past year. India is known for its policy of ‘nonalignment’ since the Nehruvian days of the Cold War – a stance that underscored the importance of freedom to not be aligned to any of the major power blocs and preserve national sovereignty at every level. Paradoxically, this also extends to the fact that despite being the world’s largest democracy, India does not promote democracy actively in other countries.
In March 2011, India sided with the authoritarian countries of China and Russia in abstaining from voting for the UN resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya when Gaddafi forces had already killed scores of civilians. This, in a somewhat hesitant fashion, was followed by India backing a Syrian resolution to end violence and call for a peaceful dialogue with Bashar Assad. This is not the Indian way, but perhaps they were moved by the fact that Assad had slayed higher numbers of citizens (around 9,000).
A few days later after the Syrian resolution, India exhibited a barely lukewarm response to the civil unrest in the tiny island country of Maldives. Then democratic president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted by coup at gunpoint. This is quite contrary to the 1988 coup d’etat against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, which failed when India intervened.
Today, Maldives serves as an indispensable trading entrepot with more than 80% of trade passing through the Indian Ocean finding way through Male. Bilateral trade between India and Maldives has only been rising through the years. The Indian government is also in the process of basing two helicopters as part of a surveillance mission to anticipate security threats. Maintaining security and supporting democracy in Maldives is not only in India’s repertoire of economic and political interests but also an increasing locus to expand influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Furthermore, quite inconsistently, India recently voted against its Sri Lankan neighbour and friend, backing a US resolution at the United National Human Rights Council to look into war crimes committed against the Tamil Tigers towards the tail end of the civil war, killing tens of thousands on both sides. This act demonstrates a new desire by India to use its foreign policy to triumph human rights and democratic accountability over nonalignment’s cornerstone of national sovereignty.
It is interesting to note that the support for the US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka burgeoned out of pressure brought about by the Tamil Nadu political party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which also happens to be a strong coalition ally of the ruling party in New Delhi. Should we thus be happy about the fact that its democratic leanings are finally forcing India to support democracy abroad, despite a nonaligned foreign policy?
Moreover, backing the resolution against Sri Lanka for democratic accountability was inconsistent with India’s subsequent treatment of arresting more than 250 protesters and placing large communities of Tibetans under house arrest just to ensure a protest-free stay for Chinese president, Hu Jintao during the BRICS Summit in New Delhi recently. Surely the restraint order on the protesting Tibetans could have been more humane and tempered if the aim was purely to ensure safety for Hu Jintao’s stay. But pleasing him despite China’s claim over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and its harsh treatment of Tibetans is quite another – trumping our national interests of both territorial integrity and democracy.
A new report, Nonalignment 2.0, written by a combination of think tank leaders in New Delhi and analysts and policymakers, proposes that India should take nonalignment to another level. This could be possible by encouraging different stakeholders, such as the “government, corporate community, civil society and the media,” to arrive at a “strategic consensus” on our vital national interests. The report argues that a principle aim should also be to expand our influence in the Indian Ocean region. While the report’s conclusions sound reasonable on one hand, they have deliberately avoided prescription in order to challenge our policymakers to think for themselves with more clarity.
Strong proponents of nonalignment must understand that there are two ways to achieve this political zen: they must practice consistency instead of what appears to be a sporadic application of illogical foreign policy. Or adopt a serious and smarter alternative of actually assessing vital interests – by considering time and context specificity, and freeing up foreign policy from the economically and politically unsound shackles of the current façade of nonalignment. More importantly India needs to recognise that to achieve its dream of a seat at the United Nations Security Council it needs to demonstrate strategy and decisiveness with a strong purpose. India has the economic power to warrant a bigger say on international affairs. It’s time for them to open up and let the words flow.
Hemal Shah is a programme coordinator of economic studies at the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank on global affairs.