As a country committed to democracy, India has every reason to rejoice at the ‘Arab spring’ as it signifies the spontaneous uprising of the people against decades of military dictatorship and totalitarian dictatorships. In one sense, advancing political reform and democracy can be looked upon as the ‘unfinished agenda’ of the struggle against colonialism and imperialism which began with the Indian independence in the mid-Fifties and for political and economic self-reliance – Pandit Nehru’s vision.
For the people of the Arab world, it epitomised the struggle for political and economic emancipation; above all, it provided them with the opportunity to break out of intellectual stagnation and for restoration of human dignity. It sought to provide them with the opportunities and choices that the people of Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa obtained in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. These developments are welcome from India’s viewpoint; therefore, India has been sympathetic and supportive of the Arab spring. India would have no other choice: given its own democratic values and traditions, it could not have sided with the dictatorial and totalitarian regimes that had been impervious to popular aspirations for several decades. This is true of the uprisings in different Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
The events in the West Asia /North Africa region over the past year and a half have been complicated by many factors in addition to the popular uprising. Main among them are regional factors such as Iran and its complicated relationship with many Arab countries, sectarian divide; Middle East politics, strategic interests of major powers; radicalism and religious extremism, and the Israeli factor. In Egypt, for example, the post-uprising scene was characterised by the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces, leading to every possible speculation, ranging from the existence of collusion between the two to complete antagonism between them. The traditional media have always played a role in these societies despite censorship and other restrictive measures. The advent of the social networking media has led to a major transformation, as it played a significant role in the transition, and can be expected to continue to play a role in social and political mobilisation in the coming years.
India’s reaction has been one of encouraging democratic reform in the West Asia and North Africa region in every way possible. India has sought to do this by leading by example, and not by supporting attempts to force regime change. India has been co-operating with the United Nations and regional organisations concerned and others in supporting democratic reforms.
Although concern for human rights was enshrined in the UN Charter, support for democracy did not find mention or support for obvious reasons for the first four decades or so; it was only after the end of the Cold War that the UN began expressing support for movements towards democratic transition. The support for New or Restored Democracies in the mid-Nineties and the subsequent endorsement of the Community of Democracies provide concrete steps by the UN for such support.
While the concern for human rights can act as a stimulant for democracy, it loses its sheen the moment it is perceived that it is being used selectively, more often for reasons of political expediency and strategic opportunism. The events in West Asia over the past year provide examples for this. Those dealing with the Human Rights Council can testify as to how the Council has been used in respect of some countries, while being prevented from discussing the situation in some others.
The form of the system to be adopted can itself generate some debate, such as for example, the Presidential vs. the Cabinet form of government. Civilian control over armed forces needs to be cast in stone if genuine democracy is to sustain. Second, owing to decades of autocratic experience, many claim that they are not yet ‘ready’ for democracy: ‘too many remote villages’ is an argument one had often heard in Egypt about the difficulty of having genuine democracy, before the uprising.
An important element of support could be strengthening of bodies of local self-government and empowerment of women. The success achieved by India in respect of the latter by reserving 33and1/3rd of seats for women in local bodies is a good example. Similarly, encouraging traditional and new media to work in support of democracy is critical; so is an economic model that supports democracy, transparency and accountability.