India and the ‘Summit for Democracy’: Behind the Silent Acceptance


US president Joe Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ has raised questions over the legitimacy of the American leadership in global geopolitics. The summit is planned for 9-10 December and will be attended by a ‘confusing’ list of 110 countries.

Among the invitees are EU (sans Hungary), Ukraine, Philippines, Pakistan, and India. Some major exclusions are Russia, China, and Turkey. The list is claimed to be based on ‘shared values’ and interests.

China and Russia have decried the summit for its inherent aim for perpetuating dividing lines between countries. Hungary has announced it would not back EU’s joint contribution to the summit. Turkey has been reprimanded for its recent attempts to break away from the US shackles of influence.

The guest list has created a black and white scenario for most of the countries, highlighting the strategic interests that the US pursues in contemporary geopolitical landscape. However, it has thrown unexpected surprises for the South Asian region, which semes to put India in a spot.

Why US is being criticised for the Summit?

According to a Pew report, only few believe that US democracy in its current state serves as a good model for other countries. A high 72 percent say that US democracy is no longer a good example to follow for others. Another report by the European think tank labels US as a ‘backsliding democracy’.

The reports highlight how American model of democracy has appealed generations through use of soft power mechanisms strengthened by a booming economy. With a slowing economy, American model’s attraction too is expected to wane.

In some opinions, Biden’s summit is a desperate attempt to check the bleeding of the US influence in the global arena. But there are just too many factors which might prove this attempt to be a folly rather than a masterstroke.

The ongoing paranoia around a Ukrainian and Taiwan invasion has led to a reminiscence of ‘cold war’ between China and Russia on one hand, and the western allies led by the US on another.

With this has arrived US attempts to pre-emptively nullify any possibilities for a renewed non-aligned movement. The summit provides a lever to pull countries in the US ambit in garb of shared values and interests, threaten others who are standing at the periphery, and snub the rest for symbolizing the demarcation between allies and adversaries.

By inviting Taiwan, the summit has raised questions over not just the US’ adherence to ‘One China Policy’ but has also attempted to infuse a debate in other countries to take a fresh stand towards it. This might to create tensions between some invitees and Beijing.

Is India in a quandary?

Over the last few years several reports from think tanks based in US and Europe have highlighted, criticised, and questioned India’s waning democratic credentials. While one report classified India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ and no longer an ‘electoral democracy’, some other have categorised India as a ‘flawed democracy’ and as only ‘partly free’, indicating that Indian democracy is under seige.

These reports often caused debates in Indian domestic political arena and created opportunities for the opposition parties and groups to question the government in power. In light of this, the invite by the Biden administration comes as a relief for the Indian government.

But it is not like India’s democratic credentials might have a lot to do with the invite. The concept of Biden’s summit creates no divisions between the invitees when it comes to the nature of democracy existing in these countries.

Considering the summit brings Pakistan at an equal footing with India in terms of democratic standards, the summit highlights the US’ deeply infused strategic interests in the invitee list, as well as in the overall concept.

Moreover, by omitting Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from the list, Biden government seems to have signalled US’ unhappiness with their stance towards the regional geopolitics. Making it difficult for these countries to navigate their way in a increasingly complex South Asian geopolitical scenario of two rising powers.  

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently concluded the Russia-India-China trilateral meeting with his counterparts. The three voiced mutual opposition to the US’ unilateral decision making in several areas, and a need for creating a more balanced and multipolarity-based global order through co-ordination and co-operation.

In this light, Biden’s summit also provides a tool to nudge New Delhi away from any meaningful collaboration with Moscow and Beijing. If the Indian government ignores the summit, it is bound to attract questions in the domestic arena as well.

Now while it becomes an imperative for India to be a part of the summit, its posturing at the summit would highlight India’s tilt towards either continuing with a non-aligned tradition, siding with the west, or raising disagreements with it to preserve strategic autonomy.

What is to come ahead?

The duality of the Biden administration’s vision lies in its propagation of ‘shared values’ while US has and continues to engage in substantive efforts to coordinate with authoritarian regimes wherever it suits its own strategic interests.

In a hard-hitting rebuttal, Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging all the foreign partners not to engage in democratization, not to draw dividing lines, and to recognize in practise the principle of the sovereign equality of states as enshrined in the UN charter. Also, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi has highlighted that practise of democracy varies according to different national conditions and cannot be one template or one standard and emphasised on the need to get out of the ‘democracy trap’. Not many non-invitees have decided to take a overtly harsh stance as of now, but a similar stance from other countries snubbed by the Biden administration can be expected.

The summit will change the South Asian dynamics considering how it draws a line between China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka on one side, and India, Pakistan, Nepal on another. A silent acceptance of the US’ attempts to check its waning influence might give a wrong signal when the world is becoming more multipolar than ever.

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.


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