Event ReportsPublished on May 14, 2019
India lacks an institutional infrastructure for advancing the cause of democracy as a soft power.
Should India promote democracy through foreign policy?

The narrative of Indian democracy is marked by a major contradiction: on one hand, India has historically been the breeding ground for democracy with its pluralistic culture that celebrates diversity and differences, and on the other hand, democracy in India is facing tremendous challenges due to various factors like criminalisation of politics, dynastic politics, caste and religion based politics, low participation of women in politics, noted Ambassador (Retd.) Vishnu Prakash in his key note address to a discussion on “Towards an Assertive Policy on India’s External Democracy Support” organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with the Asia Democracy Network (ADN), Seoul on 6 May 2019 in Kolkata. Vishnu Prakash further opined that India provides impressive assistance for consolidation of democratic system in many countries but only on request from the host country. He felt that if India tries to assertively push the cause of democracy  promotion as a foreign policy initiative, it might be counter-productive. Rather, he felt that leading by example would be more prudent approach for India.

In the inaugural session, the chair, Dr Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, ORF Kolkata, set the tone of the day’s discussion with two questions of pivotal importance -- is democracy the best form of government and should it be promoted? Dr Ghosh noted that the Lee (Kuan Yew) hypothesis argued that non-democratic forms of government were more likely to promote faster economic development like in China but then it is the democratic architecture of a country that bails it out from any crisis.

Introducing the theme of the discussion, Dr Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF, pointed out that despite India’s multiple engagements abroad in democracy assistance, India lacks an institutional infrastructure for advancing the cause of democracy as a soft power through multiple academic and diplomatic initiatives.

The inaugural session was followed by a panel discussion of five eminent speakers from diverse domains of expertise. Chairing the session, Dr. Harsh Pant, Director, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF, initiated the discussion with some crucial questions regarding the outstanding dilemmas about defining, measuring and promoting democracy. Sunanda K. Datta Ray, an eminent journalist, argued that in pursuit of foreign policy of any country, national interest overshadows the concern for democracy support. Citing several instances of India and other democracies, Datta Ray pointed out that democracy promotion in foreign policy is a camouflage for realpolitik. He said a country had to first consolidate democratic values within its borders.

Jawhar Sircar, former CEO, Prasar Bharti, started his presentation by drawing attention to the fact that India happened  to be the only country in the third world which had successfully maintained a democracy and kept the military out of politics. He stated that before discussing India’s role in democracy promotion, it has to be understood that democracy is not the mere ritual of periodic elections.  Rather, it also consists of public institutions which should be allowed to function smoothly. There are inherent dichotomies between real politics and principles of democracy as far as India’s support to democratic system in its neighbourhood is concerned.  He concluded that India should resolve two contradictions regarding democracy promotion abroad. First, she needs to wonder if the present form of Indian democracy is a product that can be marketed worldwide. Second, India should consider taking the demands and interests of the people of other nations into consideration before initiating democracy assistance towards them.

Indrani Bagchi, Diplomatic Editor of the Times of India, stated that it was important to discuss why India’s measures towards democracy promotion seem reluctant at times. This brings us to a far more important conclusion that, India as a nation, more than being universally democratic, extends its arm only for countries who in turn work in her favour. In the neighborhood, India uses democracy as a tool rather than a value, while in far off countries, it has the privilege to preach democracy.  She suggested that India should more confidently celebrate the festival of democracy. As India has immense experience in conducting electoral processes with relative ease, India’s Election Commission should collaborate with the Ministry of External Affairs to help other countries conduct elections.

Dr Rakhahari Chatterji, Adviser, ORF Kolkata, stated that in the current age of democratic recession, democracy must be promoted or supported more assertively and robustly. He pointed out that attributes like unified society, constitutionalism, respect for rule of law, fundamental rights, legitimate opposition, transparent and fair system of justice are  important for democracy to flourish.Having said so, he raised three questions: first, whether promoting democracy abroad, like strengthening the opposition in Bangladesh, will always serve India’s self-interest? Second, can a state interfere in another country’s domestic matter by avoiding the allegation of being imperialistic? Third, can India have the moral claim to preach democracy where its essential democratic institutions and political discourse are  in tatters? Chatterji suggested  that rather than through state policy, the goodwill of democracy should be spread through people to people contact.

Dr. Constantino Xavier, Fellow, Brookings India, said foreign policy basically reflects domestic values of a nation. As far as democracy is concerned, it will always be flawed because it isn’t static but is in itself a dynamic process. However, being a part of this process, it is important to get rid of cynical perceptions and instead celebrate the spirit of democracy. He specifically pointed out that India’s Universal Adult Franchise was in place much before the US could technically execute it. He argued that there exists immense knowledge gap regarding how much India has done in promoting democracy worldwide. He cited instances in which Indian political leadership has successfully encouraged and assisted in democracy promotion through capacity building programmes and multilateral cooperation in its neighbourhood in a way very different from the West.

The discussion opened up space for debate on the subject of  India’s democracy promotion beyond its shores. On one hand, it was suggested that India should go ahead with a more coherent and visible policy towards democracy assistance abroad, albeit in a restrained and non-coercive manner. On the other hand, apprehensions were expressed regarding the feasibility of such state-sponsored initiative regarding democracy promotion and it was suggested that India should instead work on further strengthening its own democratic credentials and opt for people-based approach towards democracy promotion rather than a state-based approach.

* This report was compiled by Ambar Kumar Ghosh and Sohini Nayak with inputs from Sreeparna Banerjee, Sayanangshu Modak, Sohini Bose, Soumya Bhowmick, Roshan Saha and Mihir Bhonsale.

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