India views democracy as a positive value but without a messianic zeal for its promotion, it would not hesitate to engage with the idea as long as it promotes its strategic interests — especially vis-a-vis China. It does not believe in dividing the world based on democracies vs autocracies, given the high level of engagement it has with several non-democratic regimes, but is willing to see the idea as forming part of a broader agenda setting.
In early 2020, during the US presidential campaign, the then candidate Joe Biden spelled out his foreign policy vision in the article ‘Why America Must Lead Again,’ outlining a plan to host a global Summit for Democracy. It envisioned a coming together of democratic states with an aim to ‘fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.’ The White House has since reiterated the commitment of the Biden administration to organize this summit, with the latest ‘G-7 and Guest Countries: 2021 Open Societies Statement’ declaring that the commitments made during the meeting would be taken forward in other multilateral fora, including the Summit for Democracy.
Apart from the G-7 countries, the guest countries — India, Australia, South Korea, South Africa — also signed the statement in June 2021. It reaffirmed values including democracy, human rights, social inclusion, gender equality, freedom of expression, rule of law, and an effective multilateral system. In his address to the gathering, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called India a ‘natural ally’ of the group in defending ‘democracy and freedom of thought from challenges arising due to authoritarianism, terrorism, disinformation and economic coercion.’ By signing up to the statement, India also indicated an in-principle agreement towards the American proposal, which is yet to be spelt out in detail.
This in itself is hardly an unusual step for New Delhi, which has been involved in multilateral efforts towards strengthening democracy in the past, while also carrying out capacity building through bilateral agreements with countries in South Asia, Africa, Latin America and Central Asia. However, the historical record suggests a strong element of pragmatism in Indian policy making, with the driving force being its own geopolitical interests, rather than any overarching commitment to ideology.
This was spelled out clearly in the Ministry of External Affairs Annual Report (2004-05), where the immediate neighbourhood of South Asia was highlighted as a region where India would like to see a ‘community of flourishing democracies’ to emerge. This stems from the belief that this development would bring ‘long-term stability’ to the region. At the same time, the report made it clear that while democracy was ‘India’s abiding conviction, the importance of its neighbourhood requires that India remains engaged with whichever government is exercising authority in any country in its neighbourhood.’ The same reasoning has also extended itself to its policy towards democratization in other parts of the world beyond South Asia.
Other reasons leading to India’s appreciation of democratic regimes in its neighbourhood in the 2000s included building its soft power as well as concern about the steady increase in Chinese influence.
Today, as India reorients its foreign policy in the light of the evolving international order, responding to an aggressive China on its borders and the need to prevent the rise of a hegemon in Asia, the question of democracy vs autocracy has gained prominence. Whether it is Beijing’s actions that risk undermining democracies in South Asia or the classification of Quad as a ‘mini-democracy summit,’ India senses the need to respond to the evolving global system through cooperation with other like-minded partners, including on issues related to democratization. This also includes support towards the Summit for Democracy, but without replacing its own model with the US brand of democracy promotion.
India’s efforts towards democracy assistance
Scholars have already examined the ideational dimension in India’s historical experience of backing internationalism, anti-colonialism, and its role in ‘shaping’ of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But this was tempered by a commitment to non-alignment and non-interference, while also recognizing a more realist need to deal with various actors in the neighbourhood and beyond. In fact, till the end of the Cold War, democracy was not a ‘political priority’ in Indian foreign policy, a position that has seen some change since the 2000s.
This period of a ‘nuanced shift’ followed a significant improvement in India-US ties.After the visit of President Bill Clinton in 1999, India decided to become one of the founding members of the Community of Democracies, a forum that seeks to strengthen democratic governance across the world. It held its inaugural meeting in Warsaw in 2000, with India being a member of its Governing Council, where it maintains its representation till date. In 2005, the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) was launched jointly by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, US President George Bush and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Its focus was declared to be sharing knowledge on ‘capacity building, training and exchanges to third countries that request such assistance to strengthen democratic institutions.’
By 2015, UNDEF had funded around 500 projects in over 110 countries in areas including community development; rule of law and human rights; tools for democratization; women; youth; and media. Its aim remains to ‘assist projects that consolidate and strengthen democratic institutions and facilitate democratic governance.’ Till recently, India was the second largest contributor to the Fund, which remains underpinned in the UN system, with selection of beneficiaries not being determined by the donors. This has been seen as showcasing India’s ‘cautious intent on democracy promotion’ through multilateral efforts.
Given this history, cooperating with the US on a Summit for Democracy is hardly a far-fetched idea for Indian policy makers, with the participation of several other countries.
As literature on the subject notes, India labels its own initiatives as democracy assistance or democracy support. Its efforts are either embedded in multilateral initiatives or the support is extended on request of the recipient country’s government to help them improve their delivery of democratic services. The aim is not to export the Indian brand of democracy or impose external ideas on a local situation. However, if a country seeks help, India responds positively, which has the added benefit of strengthening democratic governance in the recipient country.
In bilateral arrangements, India focuses on capacity building in the developing world, which includes education and training programs for officials of other countries in various areas of democratic governance, including policing, election management, parliamentary procedure, administration, education, health, judiciary, free press etc. This is done through Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme that aims to share India’s development experience in different sectors with other developing nations.
The focus in all these efforts is on respecting sovereignty, and aid is extended in a ‘top-down manner,’ through directly dealing with the respective governments in other countries. The nature of democracy assistance is often spelled out clearly via MoUs between governments of India and the recipient countries. This support is given only when ‘requested’ and does not involve coercive methods. Other scholars have also drawn a distinction between ‘state-building assistance and conscious democracy-promotion efforts.’ India seeks to promote democratic regimes through extending development aid, which is more in line with the European idea of it being a useful instrument to promote democracy.
This has been seen in the case of Afghanistan, where India has committed $3 billion since 2002 for rebuilding and development of the country, including construction of the parliament building. The focus of its projects has been on infrastructure, capacity building, humanitarian assistance, high-impact community development projects, and enhancing trade and investment through air and land connectivity. It has also supported democratic regimes in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives, including through loans and aid to boost domestic growth. At the same time, it has also engaged with Burmese military junta since the 1990s, conscious of the impact of a growing Chinese influence and the need to preserve its own geopolitical interests.
In all these interventions, experts have noted how democratization in other countries has much less to do with ideology for India, and more a means to advance ‘strategic interests.’
Nor is it likely to support the idea of exporting democracy to such countries, recognizing that several of its national interests will be served through engaging closely with autocratic or electoral authoritarian regimes.
The Summit for Democracy
Keeping these factors in mind, wherein India views democracy as a positive value but without a messianic zeal for its promotion, it would not hesitate to engage with the idea as long as it promotes its strategic interests — especially vis-a-vis China. It does not believe in dividing the world based on democracies vs autocracies, given the high level of engagement it has with several non-democratic regimes, but is willing to see the idea as forming part of a broader agenda setting.
For instance, the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement in March 2021 also noted the vision to establish Indo-Pacific as a region ‘that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values,’ amidst other agenda items. The G-7 statement does not talk about democracy promotion but seeks to build cooperation among signatories without imposing obligations, making it more a statement of intent. Also, the text omits mention of non-democracies and instead calls for cooperation to strengthen open societies, promote economic openness, tackle corruption, prioritize gender equality and achieve SDGs.
As noted earlier, the proposal of the Biden administration for the summit lists the areas of fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad as the key focus. Needless to say, as the US sets out to host the summit, the agenda as well as any calls to action will need to take into consideration the concerns/ideas/policies of the various attendees. In fact, the participation of a multitude of states might just be the way to mitigate the excessive tendencies of democracy promotion among certain sections in the US. The very idea acknowledges that the US is no longer the hegemonic power that can exercise its agenda across the globe, calling for a larger multilateral effort.
The nomenclature of ‘summit for democracy’ instead of a ‘summit of democracy’ might enable the hosts to frame a more flexible list of invitees. While Russia and China would hardly expect to get an invitation, the door for the event might be open for various countries at different levels of democratization. It cannot be lost on the US that inviting a diverse set of actors, at different stages of their democratization process, will hardly result in a consensus action against autocracy. In fact, a significant section of those invited will continue to maintain their ties with other non-democracies, as it suits their interests, including China. Given this, one might argue that the calling of such a summit is more a geopolitical decision than an ideological one.
There have been several criticisms of the idea, including of the US claim to be the leader, the need to focus on strengthening democratic institutions at home, as well as the tricky business of inviting countries that have been backsliding; not to mention the cost of alienating powers like Russia and China — leading to scepticism regarding its success. Other sticky aspects of the summit include demands (if any) from and by attendees during agenda setting, scope of the final agenda (democracy export through specific actions or a more focused development plan), selection of invitees, binding or non-binding commitments, need to strengthen existing plurilateral formats vs formation of new initiatives; to name a few.
While these issues are yet to be resolved, in principle, India has indicated that if the summit is held, given its strategic imperatives, it will not be averse to the idea.
Like the US, the key challenge of managing a rising power, whether through engagement with the Quad or G-7 and guest countries or even the D-10, is seen as being in line with political, economic and security interests. It remains to be seen which of these plurilateral formats will eventually emerge to be successful, but their usefulness amid growing distrust with existing multilateral institutions can hardly be denied.
Needless to say, an invite to the summit will bring further scrutiny onto India’s own democratic record, which has been tarnished especially during the current NDA government. Biden has openly acknowledged the need for the US to strengthen domestic governance, but the Modi government has displayed a particular aversion to being called out on its attacks on internal democracy. If it wishes to be a part of the Summit for Democracy, New Delhi will also have to be ready for increased scrutiny of its own democratic practices. But in purely geopolitical terms, with its focus on the China challenge, the US proposal remains of much relevance to Indian policy making.
 The formation of D-10 club of democratic partners has most recently been proposed by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the host of the 2021 G-7 summit. The D-10 countries include G-7 countries – UK, US, Italy, Germany, France, Japan and Canada – with the addition of Australia, South Korea and India. The idea first advanced by the US Department of State in 2008 has since been carried forward by American think tanks. In its latest iteration by the UK, one of the key goals is to develop 5G technologies to avoid dependence on China.