Sunday, March 24, 2013

Decoding Delhi

Decoding New Delhi’s UNHRC vote against Colombo



New Delhi’s decision to vote in favour of a US-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemning Sri Lanka for its human rights violations against Tamils during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war needs to be carefully analyzed, as this is symbolic of a new normative turn in India’s foreign policy. India’s anti-Colombo vote might, at first, appear to be no more than UPA government's policy of appeasement towards its coalition partner (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, but an in-depth analysis would suggest that there is a carefully calibrated normative turn in New Delhi’s contemporary foreign policy with clear implications for the country’s future policies, both internal and external.

Domestic political compulsions 
Of course, domestic political compulsions played a major role in determining whether or not India would vote against Colombo for the latter’s violations of the rights of it’s Tamil population. For a lot of analysts, this does not augur well for the future of Indian foreign policy: I disagree with them. I am convinced that the ability of the country’s regional politics (regional leaders, political parties and state governments) to influence the conduct of New Delhi’s foreign/defense/security/diplomatic policies is indeed good for the country, in the longer run. Foreign/security policy making should no longer be a prerogative of the career bureaucrats sitting in New Delhi (politicians are mostly unconcerned about the daily conduct of the country’s foreign and security policy as they are embroiled in bigger domestic political games): states and regions concerned and affected by certain policies should be able to veto the passage of such policies.  New Delhi should consult and seek advice from the country’s peripheries on its external policy and regions should insist on being heard by New Delhi. Such organic mainstreaming of the country’s peripheries will only prove to be good for the country as a whole.

Impact of systemic pressures 
New Delhi’s foreign/diplomatic policies are not just a reaction to domestic politics but also a carefully thought-out response to the various systemic pressures/influences. No country can live in isolation from the international system. India’s status as a rising power would requite it to be more responsive to the international system and the systemic and sub-systemic balances of power therein. India’s recent voting behavior in various global forums on human rights-related issues (Iran, Libya, Syria and now Sri Lanka) shows that India’s strategic partnership with the US and its Western allies does have an impact on its voting decisions. But then, given the multifarious domestic political compulsions, New Delhi cannot afford to be dictated purely by the international system. It will have to play the ‘two-level game’, to use a phrase from the writings of political scientist Robert Putnam, in a sophisticated fashion. Sometimes a country’s domestic opposition/politics actually helps it to ward off the pressures from the international community. 

New Delhi’s Normative turn?
States change their policies not only as a result of strategic calculations but also due to the assimilation of new global norms and increased ‘state socialisation’. I have long argued that India (especially its middle class), not just New Delhi, is on a new learning curve and has been socializing itself with the international system and assimilating global norms and values. What is interesting about this is that for a long time the international community tired to forcefully socialize India and make the latter abide by the former’s norms and values using coercive instruments such as economic sanctions, technology denial and various ‘naming and shaming’ tactics. India rejected such moves with equal force. 

But today, the international community is far more willing to talk to India as an equal partner and has been persuading India using less intrusive instruments such as strategic partnerships, mainstreaming India into the international system at India’s own pace etc. This seems to be working as India is clearly responding to such positive moves by the international community. More importantly, New Delhi’s aspiration to be a great power is also playing a crucial role in determining the contours of its approach to the international community including its voting behavior in multilateral forums. Human rights is a crucial aspect of this global normative order and New Delhi realizes that without assimilating the crucial elements of the existing global normative order, it would find it difficult to mainstream itself or become a great power.

Implications for Kashmir? 
If the above description is an accurate portrayal of India’s new engagement of the international system, then this also has implications for the country’s domestic politics and internal conflict resolution strategies. The opposition from BJP and some other opinion makers to New Delhi’s anti-Colombo vote at the UNHCR is indicative of that. They fear that the Indian vote against Sri Lanka could one day come home to bite India on the question of Kashmir. This fear is not wholly misplaced. Now that New Delhi has opted to make a normative argument on human rights violations favouring the international community’s normative assertions, it is possible that the same standards will apply to India as well. Now that India has talked about human rights violations in other parts of the world and has, as a result, supported the international community’s intervention in the internal affairs of other countries (Libya and Syria are also good examples here), same questions can potentially be asked of India as well. 

Should one be concerned about that? I don’t think so. In a sense, I believe that given the fact that the new normative turn in India’s foreign policy is a result of its increasing assimilation of the global norms and values, it will also have an impact on India’s behavior towards its internal conflicts and will force it to be more accommodative and conciliatory in its internal conflict resolution processes and strategies.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, 24 March 2013. URL: )

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