Is India losing its moral sheen on world stage?

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on October 29, 2019

India enjoys a certain standing in global fora owing to its democratic credentials. But US uproar over Kashmir hasn’t helped

It was an unusual sight: India being cornered at a Congressional hearing and accused of failing to uphold its own democratic ideals. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar started with Kashmir and said that communications were not fully restored; then she moved on to Assam, the National Register of Citizens and the news that a camp’s now being built to house people who will, to all intents and purposes, be stateless when the full NRC list is finally drawn up.

The government insists Omar was unfair and the hearing was biased against India. But it was an uncommon experience for India to be targeted for not honouring its democratic principles. Our greatest pride has been that, unlike most other countries in Asia and what was once called the Third World, we’ve stuck the course, with a blip along the way, and remained a functioning democracy. One of our proudest boasts internationally has been we uphold the Rule of Law and the proposition that all citizens are equal before the law.

But possibly that was then and this is now. The government’s increasingly fond of displaying muscularity in all its dealings. So, an attack in Pulwama is followed by a cross-border airstrike. At a different level, we use economic firepower and threaten to reduce palm oil purchases from Malaysia because Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attacked our Kashmir stand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also scrapped a visit to Turkey because it sided with Pakistan.

For good measure, India has just announced a Turkish travel advisory urging “utmost caution”. Turkey’s leader Recep Erdogan abandoned his visit too, though it must be said he’s busy at home. We may have other interests with these countries to promote and protect, but it’s become more important to let everyone know we’ll give an eye for a diplomatic eye and if everyone goes blind, so be it.

India hasn’t always striven to be the toughest guy on the block. We’ve liked to portray ourselves as the international Mr Nice Guy who follows the moral high ground. We didn’t launch a military strike against Pakistan after 26/11 even though many Congress leaders were gunning for it. Even in 2002, after the Parliament strike, we held our nerve and our hand.

Change in stance

This country has always relied more on political soft power to make its point at the global high table. Today, we talk about being an economic superpower, selling the Great Indian Market of a billion-plus people. But even before having any economic clout, India enjoyed soft power that allowed it to punch above its weight in global affairs. Impoverished India was, after all, the country which struggled for its freedom and won it. Early on, India enjoyed an international voice because it was the nation that broke colonialism’s chains. And once the Jewel in the Crown was tugged from its setting, it made little sense for Britain to hang on to other bits and bobs of the empire.

Along the way, as it took on the colonial master, India gave the world Mahatma Gandhi and the unique concept of non-violence. Does non-violence work in all situations? The answer’s obviously not. The BJP and the RSS would probably now like to portray a more muscular image of Hindus willing to take up arms for their rights. But India found it easy to transition from colonialism to a young and impoverished democracy partly because we didn’t have guns stashed away around the country.

The point was India offered a different path. This approach has been jettisoned. With its rivals, India is now the tough guy. Look at our Pakistan position which hasn’t budged since Modi’s one futile peacemaking attempt with his December 2015 Lahore stopover. Since then, we’ve insisted we can’t talk till terrorism ends.

But is that leading to India now losing a PR battle with Pakistan’s Imran Khan who keeps stressing he’s a man of peace? We know better than to trust his claims and we’re all too aware Khan only wants to burnish his image so the US will back him for his IMF loan. He now has the loan, but the IMF will arrive in Islamabad every three months to check if Pakistan’s sticking to the stiff terms. Nevertheless, we look churlish rebuffing Khan’s each and every offer and we need to script a new response.

The BJP would like us to believe India’s always been a soft state, attacked on all sides and coming up with pusillanimous responses. But it must be said we’ve never hesitated to employ a forceful response whether it’s been in Kashmir or even, finally, in Punjab when we were pushed to the wall.

Would we be better off focussing on the unique soft power we can project? If India still has a good reason to sound righteous, it doesn’t need to portray itself as the neighbourhood tough guy who it’s better not to fall foul of.

Freedom on the decline

Let’s go back to stressing our democratic credentials and living up to them. After all, look around us. If we ever take democracy and rule of law for granted, we just have to glance around Asia, for starters. China and Singapore? Great economic track records but not exemplars of democracy. Thailand? Now run by the army which stepped back to power because it didn’t like election results some years ago. And let’s not talk about Pakistan which operates a guided democracy — guided by the army. Yes, Bangladesh and Nepal, perhaps inspired by the Indian example, are democracies though they’ve faced military coups. Sri Lanka, too, has survived a violent ethnic conflict and is a functioning democracy. The latest annual report by Freedom in the World, a US-based non-profit human rights advocacy group, reported the 13th straight year of decline in global freedom in 2018. The reversal encompasses countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the US to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent. “Democracy is in retreat,” the report says.

India’s one of just a handful of Asian countries on the Freedom in the World’s map coloured bright green, which means free. In Africa, just half a dozen of 54 nations are a similar bright green. Key countries like South Africa and Kenya have stayed the course. Nigeria’s faced coups but is back on the democratic path currently. And we know what Robert Mugabe did to Zimbabwean democracy. Step back further in time and who can forget Idi Amin’s reign.

So, India’s democracy stands out and we might do well to keep it that way, striving to build up our economy and our security and sticking firmly to our ideals while we do it.

Published on October 29, 2019

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