Event ReportsPublished on Jun 15, 2019
The best way for India to promote democracy is through best practices.
Supporting democracy in neighbourhood in India’s strategic interest: Expert
For India, its neighbourhood is critical, and supporting democracy in its neighbourhood is in India’s strategic interests, according to Dr. S. D. Muni, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a former ambassador himself. Prof. Muni said he was of the view that though “efforts to impose democracy pro-actively will certainly boomerang, but when a society is ready, we should support and encourage democracy.” He was speaking at the national seminar titled “Towards an assertive policy on India’s External Democracy Support”, organised in Chennai jointly by Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Asian Democracy Network (ADN) and the Madras Management Association (MMA)  at Chennai, on 1 June 2019. Prof. Muni argued that “though we haven’t spelt out a doctrine of policy, India has been supporting democratic movements when it is in our interests, though selectively.” He noted that when democracy promotion has not been in India’s interests, India has backed away from supporting democracy, like in Bhutan in the late fifties and in Myanmar in the sixties and nineties. “Without India, South Asia would not have been converted into the democratic space which it is today. Whether apparent or not, India has played a critical role,” Prof. Muni said. He observed from his years of studying the neighbourhood that India has always supported inclusive democracy. “We should insist on supporting this inclusive character as we did in Sri Lanka in relation to its Constitution,” he said. As majoritarian rule undermines inclusive democracy, Prof Muni felt, it is absolutely necessary for India to not be majoritarian. “The best way for India to promote democracy is through best practices. If we improve our democracy, then our neighbours will follow it,” he said.

Promoting Indian values

Suhasini Haider, National & Diplomatic Editor of The Hindu said that “democracy is essentially a value, and     when we speak about supporting democracy abroad we are essentially saying we want others to accept our values.” She urged that we must test this assertion that India has not tried to promote its values abroad. Giving refuge to the Dalai Lama in the sixties, India’s intervention in Nepal for the Panchayati Raj, the Bangladesh War were all examples of promoting Indian values abroad. India’s more recent decisions to oppose the Constitution in Nepal, and the opposition to the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka were about opposing authoritarianism, though admittedly neither went well for India. However, much as in the West, India’s support is selective and pertains to India’s own national interests, she argued. Suhasini stressed the importance of debating several aspects of India’s democracy, such as the recent debates about the EVMs, the education criteria for those standing for elections, the lamentable trend of the criminalisation of politics, the need for quotas for woman candidates within political parties and reservations for women in Parliament. Though the export of democracy has not always succeeded, Suhasini felt that “the good news is that despite everything, the number of democracies in the world is growing. As of 2018, 118 countries are electoral democracies. The bad news is that elections don’t make a democracy. Today’s authoritarians are more often being elected to power as compared to past where autocrats had to come out and seize that right.” She concluded by saying, the values India should export are of an inclusive and pluralistic democracy, with a strong media accountable institutions and confident minorities.

Engage in ‘security’ diplomacy

Earlier, delivering the keynote address, M.K. Narayanan, former National Security Advisor and ex-Governor of Bengal, said “since democratic system is with many flaws and often  means different things to different people at different times, ideally it should not be imposed.” He said ,“democracy and democratic systems by their very nature are not meant to be imposed on nations, whether from outside or any other source.” There are strict limitations to imposing democracy that is not home-grown, he said. “India’s very limited experience in promoting democracy  has been less than satisfactory,” he noted. Instead, he recommended India “engaging in diplomacy to create an aura of security in the immediate neighbourhood”. “We need to reflect deeply about the merits of promoting democracy outside a country’s borders. We must heed the lessons of the past. We must possess the willingness to think before we decide, and to weigh before we weigh in,”  Narayanan felt.

Ranking system

S. Krishnamurthy , former Chief Election Commissioner, cited the rich experience of the Election Commission of India in supporting democracy in the near and far off neighbourhood. He asserted this support has been based on demands from the recipient countries. In terms of nature and the extent of such support, Krishnamurthy asserted that the EC has been involved in technical training and assistance to polling officers from several African and European countries.  The EC  has been routinely helping countries in Asia and Africa to conduct elections, helping in setting up and run EVM machines among other. Along with learning about India’s rich and long history with democracy and democratic institutions, he said, it was also important for others to learn the deficiencies in India’s model of democracy. He said there was an urgent need for an international standard, which would prescribe the important features for democracy.

Uncertain ground

P S Raghavan, former ambassador and chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), said that “while India does support democracy, the argument for a pro-active external democracy support gets us into uncertain ground.” This is one area that needs great deal of debate before we embark on something that is considered very dicey.  Given, for instance, the different varieties of democracies that exist in the world, how do we in India define democracy? How will India support democracy? Where will India support democracy and where will it refrain from stirring the pot?” he asked. Pointing out that ultimately countries promote democracies where it suits their interests, and “we are no different”, Raghavan said India, however, needed to think deeply about the harsh realities of the political and economic consequences of democracy promotion. When it comes to direct intervention, he asked, “Who judges the extent of degradation of democracy, how do we ensure the accuracy of data?” Looking specifically at Iraq and the search for WMDs, at Libya in 2011 and Afghanistan for the last two decades, he said these were not frivolous or trivial questions. Responding to the claim that India does not have an institutional set up similar to DFID in the UK, or USAID in the US, Amb Raghavan pointed out that the nation has the Developmental Partnership Administration (DPA) within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The DPA is involved in several development assistance projects across the world, the most notable one being the building of the Afghan Parliament. In addition, it runs several training courses, including those for Bangladesh civil servants and Afghan parliamentarians. Other small development projects range from power and irrigation projects to women’s empowerment. In conclusion, Raghavan said, “Development assistance creates equities for us in these countries, and creates equities for that country in us, and as a method it is far more effective than any effort to export democracy when the import conditions are not very conducive.”

Legitimacy, acceptability

Dr. Vinitha Revi, independent researcher and Research Associate, ORF-Chennai, said that while India has been called a reluctant power, and a hesitant promoter of democracy, it has also been called specifically in its neighbourhood an overbearing and over-interfering big brother. She asked, “Will we in effect just be trading one set of name-calling for another?” As western democracies themselves are questioning assertiveness and assessing closely the backlash of regime-change as an overt foreign policy goal, she felt we in India should be even more cautious. India’s support for democracy should be primarily through the UN democracy fund and community of democracies, where the focus in on empowering civil society and development. This will give India’s external democracy support legitimacy and acceptability, she said.

Regional perspectives

Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF, talking about the motivation behind the national seminar being held in India’s key regions said it was important to get regional perspectives on the topic of democracy support. Though it seems provocative as a topic, he argued India has been involved in supporting democracy in its neighbourhood -- in countries like Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan. He asked whether the time was  now right for India to institutionalise its external democracy support. Dr. Sahoo pointed out that the disastrous efforts of the US and other western democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan had not stopped these countries from continuing with their democracy promotion activities. Likewise, he believed, India should do away with this idea of waiting to be a perfect democracy before having an official policy on democracy support. N Sathiya Moorthy , Director, ORF-Chennai, moderating the discussions, said that neighbours were watching closely how India’s democracy was unfolding within its borders. “This demands  we should improve our model of democracy by addressing various challenges. Democracy support should begin at home,” he said.
The report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.
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