Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 09:35 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 09:35 | SYDNEY

India's miracle of democracy (part 2)



25 May 2009 16:12

The re-election of a greatly strengthened Manmohan Singh Government in India means New Delhi can afford to become more active in world affairs. On balance, it is likely to be consistent, constructive and bold in its foreign policy.

For a decade now, we have heard the promise of the India boosters, both in New Delhi’s strategic community and abroad: that a new India is at hand, a genuine major power that will be a democratic force for stability in the world. This more powerful India would be free of its post-colonial, non-aligned insecurities and the hobbles of autarchy; ready to transcend its narrow strife with Pakistan; willing to wield its weight in common cause with the West and other upholders of global order.

So far, India’s record in manifesting this vision has been limited and uneven. Yes, there are examples where India’s role has been constructive or its vision expansive, such as its development assistance in Afghanistan, its response to the 2004 tsunami, and its cultivation of East Asian institutions and its own role therein.

But on many issues, from Burma to climate change to the nuclear-test-ban treaty to free trade, India has hardly been a standard-bearer of change, or willing to compromise a reactive sense of national interest in the pursuit of global consensus. On the rise of China, India tends to be defensive, rather than taking initiative to define the relationship (though admittedly China’s attitude to India hardly tends to be reassuring).

Aspirations by the Indian military to play a greater role as an international security provider are hamstrung by an excess of caution in the external affairs ministry. For example, Russia, Malaysia and half of Europe were already deploying against the Somali pirates by the time the Indian Navy got a green light to do the same, in waters relatively close to home.

Moreover, on some important foreign policy matters, the first-term Singh Government, with its shaky coalition and narrow margin, was fearful of alienating blocs of voters, notably Muslims or the Left. Thus efforts to strengthening defence ties with Western countries were less than they might have been; and India was loath to sustain pressure on Iran over uranium enrichment. In diplomacy with Pakistan and China, meanwhile, Singh constantly had to watch his right flank for Hindu nationalists alleging he was soft on security. And domestic deadlock almost led India to reject the once-in-a-lifetime gift from Washington that was the civil nuclear deal. 

So what now? Of course, this is not the sudden dawn of a golden age in which India will be unleashed as the perfect partner for Washington and its friends in fulfilling the Enlightenment project. What has changed is that Singh is now truly empowered to override narrow domestic forces – bureaucratic or electoral – to advance the long-run national interest.

Where this demands a greater effort by India in international cooperation or compromise, he will likely make every reasonable effort to deliver — Obama and Singh could make a formidable combination. But where Indian interests, rationally calculated, are simply at odds with those of other countries, the West included, we can expect the new India to prosecute them with a confidence and vigour rightly grounded in the most populous democratic mandate in history.

Photo by Flickr user themanwithsalthair, used under a Creative Commons license.

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