Often hailed as a beacon of democracy among developing nations, India’s overriding business and security needs have forced it to overcome a reluctance to deal with military regimes, analysts say.
The latest sign of this realpolitik was the red-carpet welcome afforded this week to Thailand’s military-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, making a first official visit to India for talks heavy on trade.
India’s reaction to last September’s coup in Thailand was a diplomatic “wait and watch” —something independent analyst C. Uday Bhaskar said highlighted years of steady but nonetheless dramatic changes in New Delhi’s foreign policy.
“India did have a sense of discomfort that was most pronounced in the 1980s,” Bhaskar said of India’s traditional disdain for men in uniform and politics.
“The revamp of Indian policy began in the 1990s, when it was decided that Indian national interests would be paramount,” he said, explaining that India was now far more “nuanced” in its diplomacy due to its often conflicting ideals and interests.
Just a year ago, US President George W. Bush said, “America and India would bring the light of freedom to the darkest corners of our Earth,” and that “India has an historic duty to support democracy around the world.”
But it is not as simple as that, said former foreign secretary Salman Haider. “India’s earlier idealism has become increasingly tempered by pragmatism,” he said, saying practicality alone was a good enough reason for India to adapt its foreign policy.
Apart from Thailand, India has close dealings with the military junta in neighbouring Myanmar, which has been helping the Indian army deal with separatist rebels operating in India’s remote northeast.
Bangladesh, now run by a military-backed emergency government, is also a neighbour. And India has to deal with arch-rival Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf, not the first military general to govern the nation after a coup.
“India disapproved of the coups there but dealt with these governments, as there was no alternative,” said Haider.
Another former Indian diplomat, S. Shashank, noted that India—which actively campaigned for the expulsion of Pakistan from the Commonwealth grouping after Musharraf’s coup in 1999—did not oppose its readmission in 2005.
“We had restarted talks with Pakistan (in 2004) and Islamabad had promised to rein in Islamic militants acting against India,” Shashank said, explaining India’s turnaround.
Former Indian ambassador to Myanmar G. Parthasarthy noted that New Delhi had kept the military junta at arm’s length after the 1988 coup, but then changed track when India realised its security interests were in jeopardy.
“Insurgents from India’s North-East were taking shelter there (in Myanmar). Drugs were coming into India from Myanmar.” “There are instances of Myanmese soldiers being killed fighting Indian insurgents in the jungles there. Our policy of engagement has paid off,” he said.
India’s top diplomat, foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon is heading for talks this week in Bangladesh, with democracy again seemingly off the agenda.