Can New Delhi shape and use a normative consensus?
In today’s Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta carries forward the debate on neighbourhood policy that I attempted to initiate last week through the columns of Business Standard.
In short, I had argued that New Delhi finds itself in reacting to events around the subcontinent in an ad hoc manner because it has not yet thought out a policy framework on how to deal with the region. I recommended a new neighbourhood doctrine:
First, India must continue to generate high rates of economic growth so as to remain the economic engine of the subcontinent.
Second, India must unabashedly back pro-India political parties in neighbouring countries and make it more expensive for anti-India parties to hold their positions. [Business Standard]
Mr Mehta qualifies both these arguments. The influence of economic growth is gated by the fact that “region is still populated with leaders and political forces that will cut off their own nose to spite their face; and investments in enmity override the well-being of populations.” As for backing pro-India parties, he contends that, a short-sighted partisanship will not work, and “in the long term, these forces can only be those that have the potential to build a new normative consensus” in the subcontinent.
These are well-considered qualifications. It is easier to respond to the proposition that economic growth alone is unlikely to persuade political parties that would rather keep their populations poor than abandon their anti-India politics. This is rational from their perspective because they see it as politically advantageous. For precisely this reason, New Delhi must back pro-India parties and chip away at the perceived political advantage of being anti-India.
The issue of building a normative consensus is harder to crack. It is a challenge at the best of times to balance respect for sovereignty and a particular domestic political order at the same time. It is easier if the attempt to balance these is discarded: ASEAN, for instance, solved this dilemma by placing sovereignty over democracy (or authoritarianism) by enshrining the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. India cannot take this escape route: a large democracy constitutionally and popularly committed to human rights and pluralism cannot be completely oblivious to the state of its neighbourhood. This is so even when New Delhi might prefer dealing with assorted despots and authoritarians. There has always been a strong constituency in parts of Indian society that stands up for democracy and human rights in neighbouring countries. (Admittedly, this constituency has been inconspicuous recent months.This is very likely due to the unusually high level of preoccupation with India’s domestic politics and economy.)
Even if New Delhi somehow manages to walk the tightrope, its ability to enshrine and enforce norms is an altogether different matter. K Subrahmanyam expounds realism when he notes that “norms can have power despite being marked by organised hypocrisy”. That said, states usually use the language of values on three occasions: when they are too weak to employ power; when they want to mask the employment of power; and when they are too strong and would rather not use power.
So a weak, newly-independent India championed liberal internationalism; during the Cold War, the United States cloaked its use of power by invoking the language of freedom and in the proximate post-Cold War era, the West hopes that enshrining norms will reduce the need for it to take the expensive route of employing hard power.
Where does India stand today in the context of its subcontinental neighbourhood? It is certainly not so weak that it has to rely on moral platitudes alone. On the other extreme, at current levels of national income and given the increasing openness of the region to external powers, it cannot be said that India can enshrine and enforce norms relatively easily.
At the risk of leaving idealists and other well-meaning people aghast, this leaves New Delhi with the middle option: use norms to cloak the use of power, participate and even lead the organised hypocrisy.
Therefore, I agree with Mr Mehta that India must build a new normative consensus as part of its neighbourhood policy doctrine—although I suspect it is for different reasons.
Related Posts: The paradox of proximity — my paper on why neighbourhood policy is difficult and a short, quirky look at the power-principle matrix.