New Delhi: India has seldom exported its greatest product, namely democracy. It has trucked with Burma when it was still more authoritarian than now. When Pakistan lapsed into military rule not infrequently and for long durations, India overcame its initial reluctance and engaged with it. Atal Behari Vajpayee even invited the prosecutor of the Kargil war, Parvez Musharraf, for the Agra summit. With Bangladesh, coups and assassinations did not interrupt the relationship which was nevertheless marked by periods of coldness and hostility. Through all this chequered history, though, India did not attempt to impose democracy in the neighbourhood. It had embarrassing anti-democratic lapses of its own like the Emergency and pushing a liberal-democratic charter in the rest of South Asia gave the odour of interference in the internal affairs of foreign states that sat ill with India’s anti-colonial struggle. When George W. Bush as president of the United States sought to make common cause with India on democracy, India did not pick up the baton. It also withstood US criticism for ties with the junta in Burma although Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power has not brought her state in the league of democratic nations. Burma’s handling of the Rohingya tragedy is atrocious to say the least.

India, however, has to break from the past and overcome its diffidence to be an advocate for democracy. China, the biggest shark in proximate seas, is masterful at manipulating and suborning authoritarian states and nominal democracies of the region. It has made deep inroads in Nepal; it commands powerful influence in Pakistan through the agency of the military; it has an edge over India in Burma; and it almost turned the elected governments of Sri Lanka and the Maldives inside out both to champion its Belt and Road Initiative and to actively assist Beijing in limiting New Delhi’s influence in the Indian Ocean. Powerless to deal alone with political subversions in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, India had to synchronize protests with Western democracies and matters turned happily to its advantage in the end. But geopolitics cannot be left to providence and the hoped-for triumph of good faith.

Which is why, for starters, it is critical to investigate the perverse dismissal of the elected Sri Lanka prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, by the president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his belated reinstatement by an order of the Supreme Court. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe joined hands to defeat the Chinese stooge, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in elections, but the president bizarrely threw out his ally and swore in his rival as prime minister. Sirisena alleged an RAW conspiracy to unseat him in which he implied the hand of Wickremesinghe but the plea found no favour with the Supreme Court. What really prompted Sirisena to throw the nation into turmoil? To what extent were the Chinese involved in bringing their man back to power? These and other questions need urgent answers for New Delhi to prevent a repetition of the crisis. More proactively, India has to push the case for democracy in Sri Lanka. The Narendra Modi government, clearly, is not equal to the situation since by this time the Indian foreign minister should have been engaged. Running a one-man regime, he has reduced Sushma Swaraj to a cipher. So the democracy project with Sri Lanka would have to await a more representative and collected government.

On the other hand, the new Maldives president has paid a grateful visit to India and nearly a billion-and-a-half dollars of assistance has been extended to his country. It should be seen no more than a beginning with more to follow but without committing the blunder of China in staking all on a single corrupt ruler. It did the mistake in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, even Pakistan to a degree, and elsewhere. India does not have dollars to lavish like China does. But whereas China extracts its pound of flesh, India must ensure that its assistance has the widest democratic spread. This project should be extended to vulnerable democracies such as those of Bangladesh and Nepal as well (facing subversions from foreign powers as well as oppositional elements) and templates provided by similar US exercises can be modified to suit regional aspirations. The details can be filled once the need to actively promote democracy as a principle is understood and accepted by the country. Having no territorial ambitions and seeking a peaceful rise, India should actively embrace the democracy project so that it faces no further geopolitical turmoil in South Asia. Non-military means have to be constantly devised to manage the subcontinent in peace.