India Keeps Abstaining…

…but abstention cannot be a policy

When US President Barack Obama, right, met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2010, Obama recognised India as a key US partner in Asia. JOSHUA ROBERTS / POOL / CORBIS
01 August, 2011

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS India did upon its entry as a non-permanent member into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier this year was abstain from Resolution 1973, which sanctioned the international body to use force to establish a no-fly zone in Libya in order to prevent Muammar al-Gaddafi’s troops from attacking citizens who had revolted against him. India abstained again in June at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna when a resolution was put to the vote to report Syria to the UNSC for having constructed an undeclared nuclear reactor.

This ‘neither/nor’ attitude of India’s reflects both an entrenched analysis of the risks inherent in any sort of external intervention as well as a long tradition of non-intervention in the internal business of other countries. But it also indicates a new dilemma in balancing the pro- and anti-West leanings of India’s foreign policy at a time when the latter posture has been reinforced by the crystallisation of an embryonic BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) diplomacy.

India’s diplomatic hesitation regarding Western interventionism, which increasingly relies on claims of value-based human rights doctrines, is well-founded: Iraq and Afghanistan show that regimes can certainly be changed, but at the risk of chronic instability and bloodshed.

Furthermore, as a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), India has traditionally remained aloof from conflicts that have required foreign intervention, not least because Nehru’s moralpolitik—drawing from Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of ahimsa—rejected the use of force, in principle. This opposition to foreign intervention was already obvious in the Middle East, with whose colonial experience India had natural sympathies. In 1956, India was quick to denounce the Anglo-French-Israeli imperialistic intervention during the Suez Crisis. Some four decades later, India was almost equally as vocal against the US intervention to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty after Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

And yet, there has always been a certain bias in India’s hostility to foreign intervention. It did not as vehemently disapprove of the Soviet crackdown on Hungary in 1956 or of their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; but when the Western powers entered into the scene, India did not hesitate in condemning their actions.

After the demise of the USSR, India moved closer to the US and Israel, so much so that it seemed its long-constant Middle East policy would change, too. The Indian government interpreted Barack Obama’s visit in November 2010 as a major success, not only because of the personal equation that the US president and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed to have developed, but also because their joint communiqué at the end of the visit recognised India as a key US partner in Asia (including in West Asia, or the Middle East). It read:

The United States welcomes, in particular, India’s leadership in expanding prosperity and security across the region. The two leaders agreed to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia, and decided to expand and intensify their strategic consultations to cover regional and global issues of mutual interest, including Central and West Asia.

Yet, just a few weeks later, the US and India were not in the same camp regarding Resolution 1973. The difference might have been due to the bad memories that New Delhi entertains of UNSC Resolutions 687 and 688 on Iraq during its 1991 UNSC membership: the Western countries who invaded Iraq 12 years later used these very resolutions (which India had not opposed, having supported the first and abstained on the second) to legitimise their regime-change operation.

India’s politics of abstention also has much to do with the crystallisation of an alternative power pole on the international scene: the BRICS, whose discourse is increasingly critical to the West, as was evident at the third BRICS summit in China this April. The BRICS countries not only expressed their legitimate ambition to dislodge the Americans and the Europeans from their positions at the helms of the World Bank and the IMF but also criticised the sanctions against Iran and Resolution 1973. On the latter, the final communiqué invoked well-known principles: “We maintain that the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of each nation should be respected.”

The supporters of Resolution 1973 often refer to a new principle that was introduced into the grammar of the UN under its former secretary-general, Kofi Annan: the responsibility to protect. According to this principle, governments are required—as one of their duties—to take care of the security and safety of their citizens. Gaddafi was accused of butchering those Libyan citizens who asked for democracy in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Similarly, the IAEA debate on Syria took place in the context of President Bashar al-Assad’s savage crackdown on his own citizens. Evidently, the responsibility to protect, as defined by the UN, makes many of the emerging power nations uncomfortable. China, one of those particularly rattled by the Arab revolutions, is especially eager to discredit a perspective that may justify foreign interference in either the Tibetan or the Xinjiang Uyghur issue.

Even India—although a democracy, unlike authoritarian China—shares some of these fears. Couldn’t the “responsibility to protect” affect “India’s strategy to prevent the internationalisation of its own domestic problems?” Raja Mohan, journalist and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, asked recently. Not only Kashmir, but also states like Gujarat, could be affected by the UN-approved doctrine.

By adopting the same attitude as China at the BRICS summits, India may appear to be jumping on the bandwagon with a policy in which China, the heavyweight in this grouping of emerging countries, is taking the lead.

The dilemma India faces may recur in the coming months of its tenure as a member of the UNSC, during which the case of Syria, for instance, and other similar ones are bound to surface with regularity. On the one hand, India does not wish to alienate the US; on the other, it does not want to appear to be aligning with China. Hence, the awkward position India adopted in Vienna: the US voted to report Damascus to the UNSC, China voted against and India abstained. But abstention is not a policy.

The current awkwardness over abstention is all the more apparent because India is heir to a great diplomatic tradition that chose not to define non-alignment in terms of abstention. Non-alignment was not a form of default politics. It was underpinned by ideas and even ideals—for instance, the values of peace and democracy outlined at the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference of 1955 that presaged NAM. At that time, India, although weak, had a message to offer to the world. Now, the country is much stronger, but the message is more difficult to hear, especially by those such as the Bahrainis, whose oppressive rulers have been heard out far too politely by New Delhi.

The alternative would seem to lie in proaction on behalf of values that India shares with other emerging countries, like its partners in IBSA—Brazil and South Africa, which are both, like India, democracies. While IBSA is hostile to the imperialistic overtones of the West, it is equally distant from the authoritarian mindset of the other countries that comprise the BRICS acronym, Russia and China. Would it be too much to expect of India to once again take the lead—as it had in the late 1940s and 1950s—and, with its non-Western democratic partners, relaunch an alternative diplomacy to help bring together the tangled tributaries of the Arab Spring into a truly transformative historical force?

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.