Foreign Policy Blogs

India's Approach to Democracy Promotion

India has an inclination for strengthening democracy as opposed to spreading it.

With the recent flurry of popular protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries of the Middle East it looks like balancing support for democracy with strategic national interests has emerged as the central theme for contemporary global relations. The United States while expressing support for democracy movements will restrain active involvement in such campaigns. President Obama’s cautious reaction to the uprising in the Arab world reflects America’s less intrusive approach to democracy promotion. Given these realities, India’s support for democratic values, sans the missionary zeal to promote democratic regimes is fast emerging as a reasonable response to the surge in democratic aspirations across the globe.

India’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for democracy promotion is cited by critics as a hurdle in its claim to global leadership. There has been some disappointment regarding India reticent reaction to pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa. It was expected that India would more strongly support the pro-democracy protests given the country’s commitment to such values and the desire for global leadership. The response has been measured and cautious, derived from the broader framework of India’s foreign policy. In the recent years, India has reworked its commitment to democracy promotion but not along the lines expected by the international community. Response to the protests in the Middle East reflects continuation of the approach evolved since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assumed office in 2004. India is committed to fostering democratic values but avoids confrontational postures for ensuring proliferation of democratic regimes.

India continues to accord greater primacy to national sovereignty than to democracy. Though democratic regimes are hugely appreciated, the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of other nations prevents India from directly supporting political actors (even if such actors can be clearly identified) against incumbent non-democratic forces. India is unwilling to offer unsolicited assistance and makes a commitment to support democratic transitions only when invited by de jure governments. In response to the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, India’s Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna reiterated India’s position by stating that, “India does not believe in interfering in the affairs of another country. We will take the cue at an appropriate time, depending on how they want India to help. India will be willing to be of some assistance to them. But let the situation arise.” Willing to contribute in institution building, India finds it inappropriate “to jump into the fray” unless invited. (India’s non-intervention principle was compromised – East Pakistan 1971, Sri Lanka 1987-1990, Maldives 1988 – when more complex strategic interests were involved.)

As a corollary of the non-intervention principle India prefers to project itself as a possible model for other states rather than simply enforcing a particular creed of democracy. This is the reason why advocacy for democracy is made through the idea of India rather than the use of force. Even with the deteriorating situation in Libya, India has expressed its opposition to the use of force. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao categorically enunciated India’s position by stating that, “As of now we are not in favour of a no-fly-zone. We are opposed to use of force.”

The idea of India – the idea of   pluralism, liberalism, secularism, socialism and economic equity, is widely promoted as a prototype for democracy in transition states. P.M. Singh has elaborated how the idea of India can contribute to framing a response to the challenges confronting the concept and practice of democracy across the globe:

“Our commitment to democracy is conjoined with a commitment to the deeper values of pluralism and liberalism. India’s embrace of diversity as an essential ingredient of our democracy what today is characterised as multiculturalism is deeply rooted in our culture… This is a model of democratic practice that has great relevance to this fractured world, in which we often hear seductive arguments equating ethnicity or language or religion with nationhood. Such flawed hypotheses do not create states or civilizations. Democracy cannot be based on exclusion; it has to be inclusive because it celebrates plurality… Multi cultural nations like ours, will remain the targets of the protagonists of bigotry because our societies invalidate their thesis.” The India approach takes the idea of democracy – the culture of pluralism, liberalism and inclusion – to be more important and requiring longer gestation span than creating institutions – periodic elections and genuine civil and political rights – of democracy.

The incremental approach has contributed to India’s increased involvement with multilateral efforts aimed at strengthening democratic values. India is becoming actively involved in multilateral efforts to support democracy in non-intrusive ways. India’s earlier aversion to making broader commitments for democracy promotion are evident from the country’s cold response to President Clinton’s proposed Center for Asian Democracy and polite refusal to lead the Caucus of Community of Democracies at the United Nations. The July 2005 Indo-U.S. Agreement marked a clear departure in India’s approach to democracy promotion. India along with the U.S. expressed the “obligation to the global community to strengthen values, ideals, and practices of freedom, pluralism, and rule of law” and agreed to “develop and support, through the new U.S.-India Global Democracy Initiative in countries that seek such assistance, institutions and resources that strengthen the foundations that make democracies credible and effective.” In 2010, India was the second largest donor to the United Nations Democracy Fund launched in 2005 to support democratization efforts around the world. The large majority of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations — both in the transition and consolidation phases of democratization.

India has discarded its customary approach of opposing punitive measures against non-democratic regimes under special circumstances. India voted in favour of United Nations’ Security Council decision to impose sanctions against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, including a travel ban and a freezing of the assets of his inner circle, as well as a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In framing reactions to the Libyan crisis, India claims to be “governed by the position and stand taken by Arab nations and the African Union who are Libya’s neighbours and on whom this will impact when this decision is taken.”  India’s commitment to more forceful promotion of democracy is contingent on the existence of consensus among major stakeholders – national or international.

India considers democracy promotion as a means for achieving its national interests rather than ultimate goal of its foreign policy. Foreign policy is used as tool for realizing the national priorities rather than engineering democratic revolutions in the region and beyond. This is the reason why India uses the concept of ‘constructive engagement’ with non-democratic states, for example the junta in Myanmar. Former foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s observation in the context of South Asia, remains true for India’s global approach, “While democracy remains India’s abiding conviction, the importance of our neighbourhood requires that we remain engaged with whichever government is exercising authority in any country in our neighbourhood.” India employs the rhetoric of democracy more often to buttress its partnership with other democracies and much less to admonish non-democratic regimes.

In explaining how India can contribute to the strengthening of democracy in the world, P.M. Singh observed, “I am not advocating diplomatic activism, nor would we in India ever advocate any form of political interventionism.  Far from it.  We recognize the sovereign right of every country to order its affairs in the manner most desired by its people.  But I do believe that our experience can be of some help to the world community in its quest to strengthen the institutions of democracy and the idea of inclusive pluralism.”

In contributing to strengthening democracy India seeks the employ the resource that the country has in abundance – the experience of creating institutions of inclusive democracy through the idea of syncretic pluralism.


Madhavi Bhasin

Blogger, avid reader, observer and passionate about empowerment issues in developing countries.
Work as a researcher at Center for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley and intern at Institute of International Education.
Areas of special interest include civil society, new social media, social and political trends in India.