Two Flavours of Jasmine

The “jasmine revolutions,” or the Arab spring, have been seen through two different prisms by the world’s two largest democracies.

The United States has been openly welcoming and supporting not only of the peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, but also of the more bloody rebellions in Libya and Syria. It has been less enthusiastic about Yemen – which is arguably just a tribal conflict – and has been generally quiet about its Persian Gulf aircraft carrier, Bahrain.

But the broad policy of Washington has been driven by this logic: dictatorships were important in the Cold War days because it was a straight state-to-state conflict, but today where the battle is against non-state terrorism, democracies are much more useful. It is the neocon argument: democracy is the best antidote to violent Islamicism.

India has been uneasy about developments in the Arab world.

It has been reluctant to extend even verbal support to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. And senior Indian leaders are quietly scathing about the West’s role in the Libyan conflict and the Syrian crackdown.

Not, mind you, that India has much influence one way or the other. And when the dictator has left and the dust has cleared, India is more than happy to extend a helping hand to the fledgling democracy. Indian-designed electronic voting machines will soon be ubiquitous in Egypt.

But the Indian view is that too many of the Arab governments that are falling are secular ones. They may have been dictatorships, but they preserved minority rights and gave some freedom to women. More importantly, their secular polities discouraged the expansion of militant and terroristic Islam.

Therefore, New Delhi’s equation for the Arab spring is different than Washington’s. It argues that democracy would result in conservative or fundamentalist political parties coming to power. These regimes, even if they remain democratic, would be sympathetic to pan-Islamic causes, fellow Muslim governments and possibly even terrorist groups.

These two different views are drawn from two different experiences with Muslim democracy.

India’s is coloured by its relations with Pakistan.

Democracy had only minimal impact on the overall nature of Indo-Pakistan relationship. Democratic leaders in Islamabad, after all, created the Taliban, have formed coalitions with Islamicist parties and joined hands with the military in sponsoring terrorist activities across the border. If anything, India often seems to have found peace talks easier with military leaders.

Over the years, India has generally found more support for its positions on Kashmir or Pakistan from secular Arab states. And it has had nothing but trouble from theocratic states like Saudi Arabia.

The US has come to a different conclusion after 9/11. Namely, that by supporting Arab dictators it tends to get blamed for their repression. This repression seems, these days, to breed a particularly virulent messianic terrorism that believes that fighting local dictators and fighting the US are part of the same battle.

There is no complete consensus in either country. Many conservative US thinkers share the Indian establishment’s fear of who will win elections in the Arab world. Liberal Indians cheered Tahrir Square and its fallout.

But it means India and the US are finding it hard to see eye-to-eye on West Asia and its political upheaval. New Delhi was largely alright with Tunisia and Egypt – the Maghrib is too far and India never cared for Hosni Mubarak. And both movements were peaceful, something that tends to allow moderates to dominate the process.

But it was horrified by the Libyan intervention because the primary armed Libyan opposition is an al Qaeda affiliate. Similarly, those taking up arms against the Assad regime are part of one of the more militant arms of the Muslim Brotherhood. If the Arab spring is watered with blood, then its militant Islam that gets most of the points.

The US has been irritated. India is a democracy and it provides a democratic environment for more Muslims than almost any other country in the world. So why New Delhi’s lack of enthusiasm? The answer lies in a perception of national interest – which is exactly what underlies the US’s own switch from a “our bastards” policy to a Wilsonian one.

This can be resolved, if the two carefully debate the intellectual bases of their respective policies. It can also be resolved if the two just wait and watch what happens. The US may have some influence on what’s going on in the Arab world, but India does not. If the Arab spring does produce a few Frankensteins, India will be proved right. If not, it can learn for the day when it actually has some ability to affect those regions to its West.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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