The parliament sat numbed, in an otherwise engaging November evening, when President Barack Obama, head of one of the two largest democracies, reminded the other that it had largely shied away from condemning suppression of democratic rights and movements. Obama's specific reference was to Myanmar and India's imperviousness to the military junta's rigged elections and repression of democracy groups.
That this reference followed an exuberant praise of India's support to South Africa's anti-apartheid movement indicated a veiled rebuke of India's current policy of engaging whoever is in power in a country of interest.
Neither is Washington an immaculate chevalier of the democracy sacrament. In fact, half of the world's autocrats owed their existence to American backing. Yet, at the risk of throwing stone from a glasshouse, Obama could question India's diminishing contribution to the global democracy cause, especially when it aspires to be permanently ordained in the UN Security Council.
Between them, India and the US have issued half-a-dozen joint statements in the past decade, with platitudinous reaffirmation of their common democratic virtues and commitment to its promotion globally. New Delhi, though, has
hardly moved a finger in fulfilling this mission, often relegating such processes as the internal affairs of a country.
Simply so, its discreet silence and reclusiveness ever since the Jasmine Revolution swept the Arab world belies its trappings of an emerging global power. Though ignoring the turbulence in a less-prominent Tunisia was affordable to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Egyptian upheaval has put South Block into a diplomatic dilemna. At the heart of the matter is New Delhi's reluctance to write off President Hosni Mubarak, who, like for the US and Israel, has been a long-time friend of New Delhi since the Non-Alignment days.
Despite the elephantine street protests, India convincingly feels Mubarak might pull through, at least temporarily, until a transition to a new regime. Misplaced fears of a potential embarrassment from a pro-democracy statement if Mubarak manages to survive have forced a pathetic timidity in the MEA, which could not even garner the courage shown by Washington through its fairly balanced exhortation of an 'orderly transition'.
The roots of the MEA predicament lie not in its 'realist' policy transmutation of engaging useful regimes irrespective of their political attire. India's insensitivity towards the 'revolution' could rather be attributed to the absence of a policy on how to approach political emancipation movements in the neighbourhood and farther out. After decades of Nehruvian-inspired crusades in favour of freedom struggles, third world empowerment and nuclear have-nots, India's enhanced power profile, spurred by its astonishing economic growth, had prompted it to place itself among the global elite, but without appreciation of the responsibilities that comes with such elevation.
Driven by enlightened national interest, India has competitively engaged autocrats and juntas in its increasing bid to outmanoeuvre the Chinese influence in its strategic hinterland, extending up to Africa. Lost in this policy transformation was its ideological conviction on democracy and the will to endorse popular movements.
The turmoil in Egypt is an acid test which though also endows an opportunity to frame a long-term policy on its approach to popular movements and political turmoil. For, soon to follow on the heels of Egypt could be similar exigencies in volatile nations, including Yemen, Syria and Iran, and possibly even in the neighbourhood, in Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
A principled stand on such issues also becomes a pre-qualification for the UNSC ambition, more so being a billion-strong democracy. An Indian contribution to the democracy discourse is significant considering the dichotomies and prejudices that has emerged during the Bush years. Even while issuing joint statements with the Bush administration on promotion of democracy, New Delhi had not endorsed the Bush doctrine of forced regime change in tumultuous zones like the Middle East and Africa.
The Egyptian case embodies the diplomatic quandary for external powers forced to respond to political movements in regions known for their ethnic fault-lines, and where democracy has little rooting. The underlying theme of the Egyptian movement is to gain an inalienable right for the people to decide their destiny. Egyptians are revolting against a decades-old system wherein power elites subverted the means of popular determination and unilaterally determined the nation's course.
The permeation of the Jasmine Revolution across the Arab world, and potentially to Africa and Middle East, could largely be attributed to the fact many of the nations in these regions are governed by autocracies, Mukhabarat (military-intelligence) regimes, and in some cases theocracies, all of which gives only marginal space for people's will.
A post-Mubarak transition need not necessarily end up in a pure democratic system, rather could even lead to another semi-autocracy or a junta. Like in Pakistan, the army holds the reins of Egypt's political system. Notwithstanding its sympathies for the movement, its plans for the transition are ambiguous. For, in a highly-fractured polity with no credible alternatives, the army will be self-empowered to preside over the transition. Fears of the radical Muslim Brotherhood attaining sway have gained traction, which could encourage a long-term military involvement to ensure moderation.
Considering this scenario, an outright support to the movement might not be prudent. Rather, the Indian approach should be to back a reform process that could facilitate a free-and-fair franchise to determine the future of the nation. Ultimately, Egyptians will have to decide their destiny, even if it is for an Islamic republic or an Islamocracy.