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It isn’t often that two of the world’s most instantly recognizable leaders visit India in the same week. On Monday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wrapped up a four-day visit that focused on trade and investment, as well as deepening a “strategic partnership” the two countries embarked upon last year. The next day, Burmese Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in India for a week-long trip that includes a high-profile speech and a visit to her alma mater in New Delhi.
On the surface, little more than coincidence ties the two visits together. New Delhi plays host to scores of dignitaries each year, and it just happens that the two most prominent ones this month hail from the neighborhood. But Burma and Afghanistan also point toward the possibility of an intriguing new direction for Indian foreign policy. Bracketed between a rising China and the threat of resurgent radical Islam, the world’s largest democracy may want to rethink an old allergy to democracy-promotion.
In the long term, only the region’s democrats, flawed as they may be, offer India the hope of fostering the stability in its neighborhood it needs in order to focus on economic development. With this in mind, it’s about time New Delhi fashioned a regional policy built explicitly around the idea that more democracy is better for India and the region than the alternatives—Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism or radical Islam.
This doesn’t mean choosing countries’ governments for them, or even refusing to deal with authoritarian regimes when forced to by circumstances. But it does involve shedding India’s historical reticence about “interfering” in other countries’ internal affairs.
In Burma, this means rebuilding a frayed relationship with Ms. Suu Kyi despite uncertainty over whether the generals who run the country are ready to loosen their grip on power. Ditto for Afghanistan, where even an uninspiring and incompetent elected government offers more hope than the medieval madness of the Taliban.
In Pakistan, where admittedly India wields little direct influence, only the deepening of democracy carries the prospect of Islamabad’s civilians ultimately prevailing upon the army to abandon its support for jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. In Bangladesh, New Delhi should ideally prefer the relatively secular Awami League to the Islamist-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but either is better than military rule. In Sri Lanka, the biggest challenge India faces is ensuring equal treatment of the beleaguered Tamil minority, and helping safeguard democratic institutions that are under siege from the ruling Rajapaksa regime.
As for Nepal to the north, traditionalists may long for the days of the monarchy when the country was at least governed, if not governed well. Yet by now it’s obvious that the most New Delhi can do in Kathmandu is encourage the country’s squabbling politicians to figure out how to work together without returning to the violence of its Maoist rebellion.
Supporters of India’s traditional worldview will balk at such boldness. As a postcolonial nation, India has been careful to express no view of the kind of government other nations choose. In Burma, for instance, India decided to play ball with the generals when it became clear, in the 1990s, that Ms. Suu Kyi’s prospects were dim.
Ultimately, preferring such realpolitik over idealism, as the choice is made out to be, is a false dichotomy. Despite its best efforts in Burma and Afghanistan, in the long term India can’t hope to compete with China by building roads and power plants. Its strength is its vibrant society and entrepreneurial private sector, not its decrepit government. This means leaving infrastructure to the Chinese and focusing instead on the principles of free speech, minority rights and independent institutions such as the judiciary and election commission.
We could call this Indian neoconservatism. New Delhi should emphasize giving young Sri Lankan journalists exposure to India’s press or involve India’s private companies in a conversation with Burmese entrepreneurs, or give Afghan movies a Bollywood boost.
To be sure, an Indian neoconservatism will evolve slowly. In practice, New Delhi, like any other power, won’t give up the right to work with authoritarian regimes when other interests, such as access to natural resources, are involved. Only the most starry-eyed optimist would suggest that strengthening democracy will make the region’s many problems—from poverty to corruption to religious extremism—disappear overnight, or earn the goodwill of those irredeemably hostile to it.
Nonetheless, there’s no need to be shy any longer about India’s great achievement in protecting its core democratic principles. A democratic neighborhood tilts the playing field toward India and away from the authoritarian ideas that challenge it. It’s time to bring democracy-promotion in from the proverbial cold.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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