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India's Role in Democracy Promotion

Interviewees: C. Raja Mohan, Professor of South Asian Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Roland Rich, Executive Head, United Nations Democracy Fund
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
May 8, 2009

In a major departure from its traditional noninterventionist approach to diplomacy, India has embraced democracy promotion as part of its foreign policy agenda over the past few years. New Delhi plays a leading role in the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), an organization founded in 2005 to strengthen democratic institutions and promote human rights around the world, and has contributed around $20 million in the last four years to the organization. UNDEF Executive Head Roland Rich says that India conceived the idea of UNDEF, along with the United States, and it remains a major funder.

In its efforts to boost democracy around the world, India faces the greatest challenge in its own neighborhood. While Indian democracy has the potential to set a good example in South Asia, a region beset by military coups and weak democratic governments, experts say India's work toward democracy promotion in the region also runs the risk of straining ties between India and its neighbors. C. Raja Mohan, formerly a member of India's National Security Advisory Board and currently a professor of South Asian studies at the Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University, says India has to be "extra careful" and should take a "cautious, multilateral, and cooperative approach" in the region. He says India's biggest contribution to democracy promotion globally would be the success of its own democratic experiment.

While India has been active in democracy promotion around the world, its voting record in the United Nations on human rights issues has been criticized by rights watchdog groups.  Much to the chagrin of the United States, New Delhi has also proven unwilling to impose sanctions on the military regime in Myanmar. This struggle between values and national interests is not unique to India. Rich says this is one of the dilemmas governments have to balance--the balance between "realism and idealism."

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