Outside the debating halls

Outside the debating halls

With citizens across much of the Middle East up in arms against their rulers of long, democracy seems to be the political flavour of the times. There have been calls for supporting the democratic aspirations of those who live under authoritarian regimes. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he “welcomed the dawn of democracy everywhere".

Democracy, unlike free trade and equality of countries, is not a global public good that it will be good for all. It is a political feature that some societies adopt while others reject. To say that democracy is good everywhere, ignores realities of the global order: What countries do within their borders is often very different from what they do in their relations with other countries. Much of the confusion on the subject is based on the idea that all democracies are similar, if not identical, in their outlook. From there it is but a small step to conclude that established democracies should support the aspirations of those who desire it. Historically, this is false.

Two examples, one real and another hypothetical, illustrate the perils of thoughtless championing of democracy. Take our neighbour Pakistan. Whenever military rule in that country becomes untenable, there is a chorus on our side of the Radcliffe Line that democracy in Pakistan is good for India. This has been proved wrong in almost every single instance of democratic rule in that country—from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif (Kargil) and now Yousaf Raza Gilani (26/11). If anything, democratic governments in Islamabad have very little room for manoeuvre in establishing better ties with India. They face the danger of being accused of a “sell-out" to New Delhi.

Consider the case of Egypt. If a random poll were to be conducted today in India, it would not be surprising if a majority of the respondents were to support Egyptians in their quest for democracy. The Union government listens to the “popular will" and presses for democracy in Egypt. Consider the impact of this support. If after democratically conducted elections—possibly with Indian election experts lending a hand—the Islamic Brotherhood were to gain power in Cairo, what would be its stand on relations with India? Chances are that such a government would vote against India at the Organization of Islamic Conference demanding that New Delhi give “independence" to Kashmir. It would be more than a mere embarrassment and would likely engage our diplomats in undoing the damage.

The latter example may seem outlandish. But think hard, is it really so? Beyond the comforts of a drawing room or a debating hall, is a different world where good intentions rarely translate into positive outcomes.

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