When two democracies talk


When two democracies talk

The United States is willing to listen and learn, India is willing to talk about its domestic evolution. The relationship has matured.

United States (US) Secretary of State, Antony Blinken’s visit to India ended on a high note, despite initial suggestions in some quarters that the Joe Biden administration was keen to take on the Narendra Modi government on what is seen by some as India’s growing “democracy deficit”.

Much of this was more about the inherent desire of the partisan critics of the government than it was about the assessment on the ground of the sources pushing India-US convergence.

In geopolitical posturing, the role of values is often a limited one. After all, the behemoth that China is today was created by the US itself when it broke the Sino-Soviet condominium and started the process of bringing a Communist China to the global mainstream. While that strategy allowed the US to win the Cold War vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it also laid the foundation of an eventual decline of American predominance and China’s global ascendance. Democratic values and human rights were the least of American concerns then, and it is likely that they won’t be a major concern today as Washington looks set to recalibrate its strategic posture to contest China’s rise unapologetically.

Yet, it cannot be ignored that India and the US are the world’s two most important democratic forces. Though this did not lead to a significant bilateral outreach during the Cold War due to their divergent strategic agendas, it did add to the vibrancy of what is now being described as one of the “most consequential” bilateral engagements in the world after the 1990s. Both sides have acknowledged the role that shared values have played in nurturing India-US ties.

The issue of values generated speculation about the possibility of Washington trying to put pressure on New Delhi in light of perceived challenges to the Indian democratic fabric. In a strange juxtaposition of Chinese authoritarianism and Indian democracy, there have been questions about the utility of India as a partner to the US in confronting China. Twitter warriors waged their wars where largely partisan political posturing was accorded the patina of foreign policy disagreements. In India, even some of those who have, for decades, stood up for brooking no interference from the US on India’s domestic matters have started arguing that the US should more robustly take on the Modi government on the issues of democracy and human rights.

The final outcome of the Blinken visit may have been underwhelming for those who had such expectations. But it ended up demonstrating once again the ability of two democracies to handle the issue of democratic divergence with a great degree of maturity. Both sides recognised the need to distinguish between social media noise and internal political debates as both nations are struggling with their own past.

The US continues to struggle with the legacy of the Civil War. If today fault lines are getting sharper between groups such as Black Lives Matter and white supremacists, and if the can of worms opened up by Donald Trump is looking hard to be contained, it is a reflection of the unresolved challenges of the past. The assault on the Capitol Hill by Trump supporters earlier this year was not the culmination but merely the beginning of a process unfolding before the world – a process highlighting that the institutional fabric of American democracy today is not held by that very basic value that sustains institutions; trust. It is not readily evident that Biden has been able to do anything yet to bridge this divide.

The seminal event with which India continues to struggle is Partition. States in South Asia are incredibly complex entities — a mosaic of multiple ethnicities, multiple religions, and multiple convictions. The fate of minorities has been rather poor in most nations in South Asia. With all its challenges, the Indian Constitution continues to provide a shield to its minorities with a reassurance that their interests will be looked after. But the unfinished business of Partition has ensured that the Indian democratic fabric will continue to navigate those challenges even as unfinished boundaries and seemingly temporary provisions such as Article 370 have continued to challenge India’s governance agenda.

As a result, both in India and the US, day-to-day political debates are embedded in the larger forces of history. Mature democracies will have to learn to find ways to respond to these debates without losing grip on governance. India and the US are having to contend with this in their own ways and in their engagement with each other.

Blinken’s visit has underscored once again that the US is taking a strategic view of India and views New Delhi as a partner it can work with. Some of the more extreme views in the commentariat and social media are being discounted by mature political systems that recognise the importance of different cultural contexts within broader democratic space. Implicit in this is the recognition that the world is not just politically and militarily multipolar but also increasingly culturally multipolar.

Where Blinken acknowledged the challenges that all democracies face by suggesting that the US recognises “that every democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress,” Jaishankar affirmed the need for engagement and a shared “approach to pluralism” through the lens of “our own contexts, convictions, and cultures”. By saying this, the duo made it clear that the issue of democracy, instead of becoming a challenge, is actually opening up a new space in India-US relationship where the US is ready to listen and learn more and India is no longer reticent in having a conversation about its domestic system with external interlocutors. The world is changing and India-US partnership is evolving accordingly.

Author: Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 


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