India and the Arab Revolutions

The Arab world is in ferment. While issues of democracy and individual rights have cropped up several times in the course of recent events, the US has been considerably circumspect in its pronouncements given its own patchy record in promoting such values in the region. Meanwhile, Chinese propaganda rubbishes talk of any transition to democracy, emphasizing ‘social stability and normal order’ and warning against the chaos of regime change.

Where however, is India in this picture?

It would appear that New Delhi remains in the shadow of other global powers as calls for democracy reverberate in its extended neighbourhood. Granted, that India’s capabilities – one of the world’s smallest diplomatic corps, for example – do not allow for a very active role in the region. Add to this, the many Indian citizens working in the region and the country’s heavily oil import dependency.

India thus, has other considerations to keep in mind than coming out strongly and openly in support of popular movements for democratic change – or opposing dictators it has hobnobbed with for decades in the Non-Aligned Movement and other inconsequential Third World groupings.

Yet, the current spate of revolutionary fervor in the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula is a point of inflexion for the region’s people both as Arabs and as Muslims, which India would do well to take advantage of. The region’s many experiments in the last century with secularism often foundered because these regimes were seldom sufficiently representative of the people they ruled. Later, Cold War politics helped entrench authoritarian regimes, whether secular or Islamist. Now however, many of these nations are ready to experiment with both secularism and democracy.

And which nation provides a better example than India, of a democracy that has continued to function successfully despite its great diversity of religions, ethnicities and classes, and its difficult developmental challenges? India’s stepping up to the plate as an exemplar is also a strategic objective for two reasons. One, it allows India to distinguish itself from fellow democracy and sole global superpower, the US, as well as from a host of other emerging powers, including China. Two, despite its various shortcomings, including Kashmir, India still showcases to Muslims everywhere a reasonably successful alternative to violent protest and Islamic radicalization.

However, is New Delhi thinking along these lines?

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called on India to help Egypt in its democratic transition, New Delhi said it would wait till it had a request from the Egyptians themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood has now declared itself in favour of Indian involvement in Egyptian elections. This might seem somewhat ironic for both the US and India, given their experiences with radical Islamic groups. However, for all the unease that groups like the Brotherhood generate, they too have a right to democratic participation in elections as long as they continue to reaffirm their commitment to democracy following the elections.

In addition, by getting into the thick of things in the Arab world, India also highlights the debates within its own Muslim communities that take place in a democratic framework without recourse to violence. The contrast with Pakistan’s violent religious radicalization and with the repression of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang would be easily evident.

A democratic transition in the Arab world is essential for India not only has civilizational linkages to West Asia and the Maghreb but also dense economic connections. And if India has seen its immediate neighbourhood descend into chaos of one form or the other due to failed transitions to democracy, it cannot now afford the chain of instability to grow still further.

Naturally, this concerns the Chinese too. And they are hoping that the new transition regimes in the Arab world will follow the ‘Beijing model’ of a ‘harmonious society’ that privileges not representative democracy and individual freedoms but social stability above all – a stability they believe can be ensured simply by sustained economic growth and rise in the people’s living standards. However, as intermittent protests in China today show, the Chinese too cannot live by bread alone.

The secular, democratic Republic of India provides an important alternative to the developing world. And while New Delhi may feel still unready to take on the onerous task of being a champion of democratic values, it must grab the opportunity that has presented itself. That is how aspiring great powers become great powers.

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “How best to take sides in somebody else’s revolution,” DNA, 10 March 2011.

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