A BILLBOARD welcoming newcomers to the “world’s largest democracy” has long greeted those crossing the land border from Pakistan into India at Wagah in Punjab.
India takes justifiable pride in its democratic credentials. Yet the pluralist principles that India follows so proudly at home seem to be playing an ever less important role in its foreign policy—at least in its immediate neighbourhood.
This is not surprising. Some Indians see their country as a lone beacon of democracy surrounded by an arc of autocracies. That may be unfair to Sri Lanka. But India’s other neighbours are under emergency rule (Pakistan, Bangladesh), engaged in delicate transitions from monarchy (Nepal, Bhutan) or long-standing dictatorships (China, Myanmar, and the tiny Maldives).
Were India to make a lot of noise about its neighbours’ politics, it would be accused of interference and bullying. So it errs on the side of reticence.
Take its reaction to recent events in Myanmar and Pakistan. When General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan imposed, in effect, martial law on November 3rd, India was restrained: “We regret the difficult times that Pakistan is passing through,” said a foreign-ministry spokesman, as if Pakistan were a wayward teenager in need of a little love and understanding.
There was no direct criticism of the coup and only the faintest endorsement of “democracy” as a possible solution to Pakistan’s woes.
At such a sensitive moment, virtual silence may have been the only prudent response. But the government has been criticised for its equally circumspect response to the Myanmar ruling junta’s violent suppression of monk-led anti-government protests in September.
India’s foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, expressed the hope that “all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue”. He said the “process of national reconciliation initiated by the authorities”—a reference, presumably, to the passage of a constitution designed to entrench military rule—“should be expedited”.
There was no condemnation of the violence, no hint of support for the protesters’ aims, and no criticism of the junta.
This was in sharp contrast to the moral and practical support India extended to the Burmese opposition after its failed uprising in 1988. Many Indians admired Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, who once lived in India, where her mother was Burma’s ambassador. India was generous in taking in refugees from the conflict.
So India’s refusal to speak out on behalf of the beleaguered Burmese opposition struck some as a betrayal. Having already lost some influence—and access to natural gas—in Myanmar to China, India seemed loth to jeopardise its recent improvement in relations with the junta. Even Myanmar’s partners in the Association of South-East Asian Nations—and China itself—were more critical.
Similarly, there were complaints this month when the ruling Congress party told its officials and ministers to stay away from a function in Delhi to “felicitate” the Dalai Lama. Tibet’s spiritual leader and some 100,000 of his followers have made their home in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959.
Some suggested that the ban was part of a deal to secure Chinese support for India’s controversial (and stalled) nuclear-technology deal with America.
Those who would like to see India follow an “ethical” foreign policy, sticking firm to its oppressed friends such as Myanmar’s democrats and the Dalai Lama’s followers, find such calculations shameful.
Indian diplomats, however, have a robust defence: at least India does not pick and choose between “good” and “bad” autocrats. The West has propped up General Musharraf, seeing its strategic interests served by his staying in power, and has backed an unelected regime in Bangladesh. It is hesitant to threaten sanctions in China, where it has huge commercial interests. Myanmar, where it has none, is a soft target.
The pragmatism of India’s foreign policy upsets idealists. But at least it is consistent.Source: Economist