The Security Studies Seminar is a monthly seminar series that aims to comprehensively discuss a new piece of academic research on Indian and international security, with the author.

Since independence, Indian strategic thought and practice have possessed a strong liberal dimension. In his new paper, “Democratic State and Society in Indian Foreign Policy,” Constantino Xavier contradicts the popular assumption that Indian leaders lend their support to liberal and pluralist regimes based solely on a sense of moral righteousness. Instead, he states that such support is usually extended on the assumption that it will lead to greater stability, security, and order in the South Asian region. The paper also explores domestic influences on Indian strategic practices, particularly through representative democratic institutions, electoral competition, and a vibrant civil society. 

Carnegie India hosted Constantino Xavier, fellow at Brookings India, for a discussion on the democratic state and society, and their influence on Indian foreign policy, based on his paper. The discussion was moderated by Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at Carnegie India.

Discussion Highlights

  • Forces Influencing Indian Foreign Policy: Participants noted that the three forces driving Indian foreign policy are: a liberal democratic ideology, government, and civil society. They explained that Indian leaders often view political liberalization as inevitable in the South Asian region, thereby, exerting their liberal and moral ideologies on Indian foreign policy. Participants stated that these ideals are also shared by India’s civil society, which often lends its support to the government to aid democratic forces in the South Asian neighborhood. However, they mentioned that there have also been incidents where the government and civil society have differed in their outlook toward democracy in the region, with the former choosing to take a pragmatic path. 
  • The Government’s Pragmatism: Participants explained that the Indian government’s approach toward its neighbors in the South Asian region is two-fold. The first, they stated, is that Indian leaders believe that India’s success can be attributed to its liberal democratic ideology, and therefore promote democracy in its neighborhood. The second, they determined, is that the Indian government’s extension of support to its neighbors is primarily aimed at promoting stability in India and the larger South Asian region. The pragmatic focus of the latter, the participants explained, has occasionally led Indian leaders to support illiberal regimes in the neighborhood. As an example, they highlighted India’s support for the military regime of Myanmar for fear of increased Chinese influence in the region. Despite such instances, however, the participants acknowledged that the Indian government’s understanding of both democracy and the South Asian region provides it with an advantage over other global powers.
  • The Influence of Civil Society: Participants discussed the liberal influence that civil society has had over Indian foreign policy. They also explored the auxiliary role that informal liberal forces—such as lobbies and pressure groups—have had on the Indian government to enhance or moderate its support to neighboring regimes. To better understand this, participants emphasized the difference of views held by the government and civil society in the case of Nepal—while the former officially engaged with the monarchy, the latter supported democratization. In addition, participants noted that the Indian government has often employed its civil society as leverage during negotiations with neighboring countries. 

This event summary was prepared by Nikhila Eda, a research intern at Carnegie India.