In the considerably vast literature on Indian foreign policy, the influence of democracy promotion in New Delhi’s diplomatic oeuvre plays a lesser role. This is neither curious nor inadvertent. Historically, the export of democracy has not been a priority for India, and the scant analytical work on the subject mirrors this reality. New Delhi’s limited efforts in this domain are termed democracy assistance and/or democracy support. The deliberate use of language, such as “assistance” and “support,” which casts both giver and receiver as equal partners, is a larger reflection of the Indian foreign policy tradition.

While India has made room for greater rhetorical emphasis on democracy as the ideal system of government, these enunciations were, and continue to be, generalist. The prominence of “democracy” in statements and speeches over time has often been precipitated by opportunities to mitigate India’s security vulnerabilities and for status enhancement. These opportunities have emerged from both a changing global geopolitical environment and changes in the liberal international order’s view of India’s democratic credentials.

Postcolonial views of non-alignment, non-interference, non-intervention, and sovereignty, as well as factors determined to be in India’s national interest, such as geopolitical realignments and a desire for strategic autonomy, have shaped India’s outlook on democracy assistance and support. These perspectives create a narrative with certain distinct features even in the absence of an official policy: First, India expects to lead by the example of its domestic commitment to democratic values; second, it offers external help when requested; third, it prioritizes a pragmatic foreign policy, particularly in a politically divergent neighborhood, while stressing the importance of liberal values in its rhetoric.

New Delhi is generally agnostic about whether the country it is dealing with is a democracy or not. Economic and security calculations have historically determined the kind and level of India’s involvement, which have contributed to a fluctuating emphasis on external democracy assistance. As a subject of inquiry, therefore, an examination of New Delhi’s approach to externalizing democracy provides broader insights into Indian foreign policy thinking and practice.

Economic and security calculations have historically determined the kind and level of India’s involvement, which have contributed to a fluctuating emphasis on external democracy assistance

Values, Interests, and a Pragmatic Foreign Policy

While several arguments have been made about substantive changes in India’s orientation towards democracy assistance since the Cold War, more recent analysis suggests that little has changed in actual practice. Ultimately, India has sought to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy, with a rhetorical emphasis on liberal values when it has been in its interest to do so. Foreign affairs analyst, Zorawar Daulet Singh, discerns two dominant lines of thought in New Delhi’s fluctuating emphasis on the externalization of democracy and liberal values, as well as elite attitudes to managing political transitions outside its territory more generally.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, espoused the merits of democracy at home but did not find similar merit in managing or supporting political transformations elsewhere, particularly within other newly independent states, unless essential to Indian interests. Even then, this was to be implemented with a “light footprint,” with little to no coercion.

This Nehruvian approach was followed by India playing an active part in shaping the course of internal politics in neighboring countries. New Delhi’s role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, as well as Operation Cactus (1988) in response to Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s request for intervention during an attempted coup, are examples that distinguish this period. The 1990s witnessed an approximation of the earlier emphasis on non-interference. Best characterized by the Gujral Doctrine—attributed to Prime Minister IK Gujral—Singh notes this period “was a sharp retreat from this [earlier] ambitious approach” and closer to the Nehruvian thinking on balancing realpolitik with principles.

Although the 1970s and 80s represented India’s clearest departure (in deed) from non-interventionism, it began to enunciate (in word) a somewhat more overt commitment to global democracy promotion efforts only in the early 2000s. This was a response to moments of international opportunity gauged to be in New Delhi’s security and political interests. Chiefly, these moves were intended to tighten India’s partnership with the United States, stave off China’s rising ambitions in the neighborhood, and draw attention to Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism, around the same time as Washington’s announcement of its “Global War on Terror.” However, Indian diplomatese in response to international crises, from Yugoslavia (1999) to Syria (2012), continued to be enshrined in the language of values, demonstrating a continuing commitment to the principles of non-interventionism and sovereignty.

What prompted a more explicit Indian commitment to global democracy promotion efforts?

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as an important milestone in the U.S.-led liberal order’s assessment of the success of their model of democracy promotion. India, however, was not overly enthusiastic about being party to an approach it believed was hinged on external imposition. The end of the Cold War also signaled the beginning of U.S. unipolarity, which could have important consequences for India’s ability to make foreign policy decisions independently—its strategic autonomy. In any case, there was no international push at this time to involve India in democracy-building projects, given its prevailing characterization as only “partly free,” and its international isolation following the 1998 nuclear tests.

Later, however, with several countries charging the United States in particular with internal political subversion, democracy promotion began suffering from its own image issues. On the boil for some time, the negative perception of U.S.-led democratization efforts was cemented by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Subsequently, the West sought to manage its international reputation by involving democracies of the global South in their efforts.

India’s hesitant view of democracy promotion was moderated by a recognition of Washington’s ability to facilitate its “mainstreaming” into the global order—it acknowledged the strategic value of this moment for itself. Bilateral developments against this larger geopolitical background, such as backchannels in the run-up to the 2005 India-U.S. nuclear deal, contributed to bringing New Delhi out of isolation. These resulted in public pledges by India to uphold democracy in the world—both as transactional concessions, and in view of their reputational and international political visibility gains for India. New Delhi’s decision to both sign on to the 2000 Community of Democracies and, together with the United States, to co-launch the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) in 2005, comprise some specific manifestations.

Democracy Assistance Today

The rhetorical accentuation of democracy as a governing principle has endured under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, the importance, if any, given to democracy assistance appears to be following a downward trend. An interesting feature is the distinct reduction in financial contributions to the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF). While still the second highest donor, there has been a sharp decline in the volume of New Delhi’s financial support over the past decade. Contributions to the UNDEF are a useful measure of commitment to democracy assistance more broadly because the funds are not disbursed directly by donors, which speaks to India’s position on non-interference in others’ internal affairs. It also anchors said efforts in the UN system, which is aligned with New Delhi’s view of the organization’s centrality in the conduct of international relations.

Further, democracy support activities, such as help in conducting and supervising elections, play only a small role in the matrix of India’s bilateral assistance projects. Here, development aid takes on greater prominence than support for “democratic norms and institutions.” It is interesting then that concomitantly, under the same government, there has been an uptick in targeted, bilateral financial assistance and economic development projects, administered through the Indian Export-Import (EXIM) Bank. Researchers from the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) have argued that the strengthening of India’s foreign aid portfolio is meant to help it leverage economic interdependence for geostrategic gain in an increasingly acrimonious neighborhood, into which China has made significant forays.

These are both relevant indicators to gauge the current Indian government’s estimation of democracy assistance in furthering foreign policy objectives. It could potentially suggest a new episodic fluctuation; one characterized by rhetorically underlining India’s democratic credentials more than before, while simultaneously further de-emphasizing the role of democracy assistance more than in most of the earlier phases.

There are several reasons for doing so: First, centering the Indian geopolitical discourse on values (such a democracy) distinguishes it from the hegemonic, often threatening, features of the Chinese narrative; second, it situates New Delhi as a likely alternative and partner in a just, rules-based global order; third, it is an attempt to disabuse notions of New Delhi’s heavy-handedness in the neighborhood; finally, such an approach could accrue equity for a global Indian leadership role. Ultimately, these correspond with assessments of the pursuit of a pragmatic Indian foreign policy tradition.

Most fundamentally, India has repeatedly cited, through successive governments, its desire to lead by example. Its greatest test of credibility then, is its ability to safeguard and uphold these democratic credentials at home.


The marginal role of democracy assistance in advancing Indian foreign policy objectives has remained consistent over time. Principled positions on sovereignty, non-interventionism, changing global geopolitics, and realist assessments of India’s security and economic interests have molded New Delhi’s homegrown, indigenous conceptualization. If any shifts in orientation can be discerned, it is when values and interests have either aligned, been at odds, or appeared in varying ratios. At the end of the day, India’s own security calculations have been central to its approach.

India has cast itself in a moral role—as a steward of a normative, liberal values model that does not impose democracy on others, but proffers help when asked. The legitimacy of this discourse becomes important not just for soft power gains in the neighborhood, but also for leverage at the global high table. Most fundamentally, India has repeatedly cited, through successive governments, its desire to lead by example. Its greatest test of credibility then, is its ability to safeguard and uphold these democratic credentials at home.


Image 1: Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Lisa Ferdinando via Wikimedia Commons

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