Democracy and India's Foreign Policy

Economic and Political Weekly, 30 June 2018

In 1950, the year the Republic of India came into being, Jawaharlal Nehru told his fellow parliamentarians that India “stood not only for progressive democracy in our own country but also in other countries … it has consistently been part of our policy in distant quarters of the world” (Muni 2009: 25). In recent decades, we have seen even greater emphasis on India’s identity as a democracy. In 2005, India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh exhorted, “liberal democracy is the natural order of political organisation in today’s world. All alternate systems, authoritarian and majoritarian in varying degrees, are an aberration.”1 By affirming “India’s identity as the world’s largest democracy,” it has been suggested that policymakers were “breaking from post-Nehruvian Third Worldism” (Mohan 2015: 142). External actors too, often for strategic motives of their own, have drawn greater attention to India’s political system as a factor that should shape Delhi’s foreign policy choices.

Focusing on Indian words and, more importantly, its postures and deeds during this period of identity flux, however, indicates that the “democracy” factor in India’s statecraft has not heralded the shifts that were envisaged by its proponents at home and abroad. What we discover instead is that policymakers, in spite of the occasional rhetoric they espouse to meet the expectations of different audiences, have been non-ideological and pragmatic in the practice of foreign policy. Beyond the subcontinent, Indian behaviour has seen a large measure of continuity, as have the norms that guided these responses towards crises in democracy or Western attempts to reorder regimes. In the immediate neighbourhood, there appears to be an absence of an agreed framework for what ought to be the extent of India’s geopolitical footprint in the domestic affairs of its neighbours, as well as what values and norms ought to be guiding Indian policy.