A major theme of United States (US) President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy platform has revolved around improving democratic cooperation. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in March this year, Biden declared: “During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” Among the areas of emphasis, he wrote, would be efforts at countering illicit finance and tax havens, involving civil society organisations, and calling on technology companies to defend democratic values.
Biden and his advisers recognise that democracy is imperfect and a constant work-in-progress, and they have indicated that their approach will not be zealous, but rather respectful of a variety of viewpoints.
For India, this is an opportunity to deepen engagement with Washington in an area that remains underdeveloped. India projects itself as the world’s largest democracy, just as the US likes to think of itself as the leader of the free world. But the very fact that the two countries have been proudly democratic has not always been enough to bring them closer. The 1970s and 1980s, in particular, saw sharp differences emerge on a variety of issues, from nuclear disarmament to the war in Afghanistan. Today, democracy in the two countries — however imperfect — arguably offers more areas of convergence than of divergence. A robust conversation between India and the US on bilateral and global democratic cooperation is necessary.
India has a good story to tell not just about its establishment of democracy at home (with all of its attendant challenges), but its support for democracy abroad. The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme was established in 1964, and has benefited thousands of people in the developing world in areas that directly and indirectly support democratic governance, through training programmes, feasibility studies, the sharing of expertise, and disaster relief.
India’s Election Commission pioneered the use of indelible ink and electronic voting machines, among other practices that have been widely replicated. Between 2011 and 2018, the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIIDEM) has trained over 1,000 election officials from 30 countries.
Additionally, India’s recent foray into foreign assistance has included dozens of micro-projects — in Central America and the South Pacific, West Africa and Central Asia — to support women’s cooperatives, civil society organisations, and youth groups. That such efforts get little attention in India, let alone in third countries, is another matter.
As Constantino Xavier of the Centre for Social and Economic Progress has pointed out, India’s democratic contributions are probably most evident in its near abroad, although efforts have not always been wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy support. In Sri Lanka, India has provided assistance to repatriated refugee populations. In Myanmar, India has assisted with civil-military relations and disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration. In Nepal, India played an active role in bringing to an end a civil war, even if that country’s democratic politics were to subsequently complicate relations with New Delhi. In Afghanistan, New Delhi has contributed meaningfully to democratic State-building — from a parliament to administrative and military training. More recently, India has also extended governance support to the Maldives after a period of political crisis. On global democracy, the challenge for India and the US will revolve around finding ways to coordinate their approaches.
At the same time, differences extend to how India and the US approach some important questions when it comes to democratic governance, particularly at home. Beyond immediate developments, there are several areas of structural difference between Indian and American democracy.
One is in terms of national security and State-building. Indian national security laws give significant cover to security agencies to operate, and have done so since the 1960s. For its part, the US has had its own challenges in this area, which, for example, explain its use of extraterritorial detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.
A second area relates to freedom of expression, where Indian laws have since 1951 been more restrictive than the absolutism of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This also extends to restrictions of online content, which were somewhat moderated by the Supreme Court’s ruling against Section 66a of the IT (Amendment) Act in 2016.
A third area is checks and balances, or democratic institutions. Although some of the differences stem from India having a parliamentary system, the roles played by state governments in India, the courts, the Election Commission, auditors, ombudsmen, and regulators are often overlooked. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are evident differences between India and the US when it comes to personal laws and pluralism.
India is not necessarily an outlier in some of these respects, but representative of many pluralistic democracies in the post-colonial or developing world.
In fact, India has a stronger tradition of civilian control over the military, raucous public debate, autonomous state institutions, and navigating diversity than most other developing world democracies.
A Biden administration could adopt a narrow approach to global democratic cooperation, confined to a small number of western countries and advanced Asian economies. But pursuing a grander agenda will require a deeper dialogue with India.
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