NEW DELHI — The growing warmth in U.S.-Indian relations is getting strangely reflected in India’s adoption of U.S.-style dual standards on democracy.

Over the decades, the United States has had a penchant to cozy up to dictators in strategically located or resource-rich nations while advocating democracy to others. It built up the shah of Iran, Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Unmindful that its blind support of the previous Pakistani military dictator helped rear what later became al-Qaeda, Washington today toasts President Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan as a model ruler and friend, showering his regime with billions of dollars in aid.

Still, in a pretentious vision to spread democracy, U.S. President George W. Bush used the words “liberty” and “freedom” more than four dozen times in his recent inaugural address.

Now, New Delhi and Washington have joined hands to promote democracy in Nepal while keeping mum on the strengthening of Pakistan’s one-man junta. When Musharraf reneged on his pledge to quit as army chief by Dec. 31, the U.S. looked the other way. India has also kept quiet despite having helped Pakistan return to the British Commonwealth on the basis of that pledge.

Like Washington, India is also treating Pakistan as deserving of special favors. One recent example is its decision to open negotiations on an overland gas pipeline from pariah Iran through renegade Pakistan, after de-linking the project from Islamabad’s continued refusal to establish even normal trading ties with India. The pipeline, yielding hundreds of millions of dollars in annual royalties through transit and other fees, will be a major foreign-exchange earner for Pakistan.

In contrast, India has taken a tough, menacing stance against Nepal, putting on hold all military aid and senior-level visits after the monarch there seized direct power. To be sure, a despotic king with a wayward son as heir to the throne gives India little comfort. But India’s security had come under pressure during Nepal’s faltering democratic experiment, which not only helped nurture a spreading Maoist insurrection in the countryside but also allowed Pakistani intelligence to set up safe houses in the Nepalese capital and stage the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 in December 1999. A Maoist triumph in Nepal, which has open borders with India, would be like the Talibanization of a member-state of the European Union.

By suspending cooperation with Nepal, India risks playing into the hands of an overly ambitious China, which has been adroit at seizing any opportunity that a state’s isolation may open up, as it has shown in Myanmar, Iran and elsewhere. With a vastly upgraded infrastructure in Tibet and links with several Nepalese players, Beijing has developed leverage over Nepal, which former leader Mao Zedong had described as one of the fingers of the Tibetan palm, the other fingers, according to him, being Bhutan and three Indian states — Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir. China occupies one-fifth of Kashmir and, in its maps, shows Sikkim as independent and Arunachal Pradesh as its territory.

On balance, genuine democracy (not the palace-dictated type disbanded by an aggrandizing king) remains India’s best bet in Nepal. The same is true in Pakistan, where military rule has usually fattened India-hating, Punjabi-dominated governing elites ready to try out their fantasies on the battlefield.

India emulates the U.S. dual standard on democracy, but in an inverse way — it badgers buddies and flatters foes. One proffered reason for calling off the summit meeting of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in February was that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was loath to shake hands with the Nepalese monarch and provide him political respectability in the aftermath of the palace coup. King Gyanendra could return the compliment by sending New Delhi a framed picture of Singh, all smiles like a Cheshire cat, fawningly clasping Musharraf’s hand with both his hands in New York last fall.

When another neighborhood autocrat, Premier Wen Jiabao of China, makes his much-trumpeted visit to India in the spring, he can be sure no Indian will dare raise issues of human rights, political prisoners and press freedom with him. Those issues India has set aside for friendly but vulnerable states like Nepal and Bhutan.

Randall Schweller, in his book “Deadly Imbalances,” classifies nations with a built-in craving for revision or hazardous gain as “wolves” and “jackals,” and status quo states as “lambs” or “lions.” India eminently qualifies as a “lamb,” wedged between “wolf” China and “jackal” Pakistan. Lamb-like, India is wary of backing friends but eager to please enemies.

India didn’t stand by its friends in Bangladesh when it mattered, and now that nation is an anti-India, Islamic fundamentalist hotbed. In Sri Lanka, India confused friend with foe, and alienated all constituencies. A patronizing attitude toward Nepal, fostered in part by a large amount of Indian aid, has turned a growing number of influential Nepalese against India. In staging the royal coup in defiance of India’s express warning, the monarch called India’s bluff. States have understood: It doesn’t pay to be India’s friend.

While seeking to penalize Nepal in the name of democracy, India has been inexplicably silent on the European Union’s move to lift its 15-year ban on arms sales to the world’s largest autocracy, China. Having forged a strategic partnership with the EU, India has every right to speak up on an issue that concerns both its love for democracy and its security. Yet, it is not even hinting that, as a condition for lifting the EU arms embargo, China demonstrate respect for human rights as India would have Nepal do.

While the U.S. and Japan exert pressure on the EU, India quietly watches from the sidelines the outcome of an issue with significant implications for Indian security. If China gets state-of-the-art weapon systems, the balance of power across Asia would be undermined and India’s security would come under greater pressure.

Contrast India’s reticence with China’s outspokenness. Although India has so far not considered buying the U.S. Patriot antimissile system, China was quick to react last week to reports of preliminary Indian-U.S. discussions, warning that such a sale would not be “conducive for the maintenance of peace and stability.” But when the EU contemplates selling sophisticated arms and technology to Beijing, India does not say a word on the move’s potential impact on peace and stability, or about the need for China to come clean on its illicit nuclear transfers to Pakistan and missile sales to Islamabad and Tehran.

As the only thriving democracy in a vast region stretching from Jordan to China, India can rightly be proud of its deeply-rooted democratic traditions. It is spot on in seeking the emergence of “the whole of South Asia,” in the recent words of its foreign secretary, as “a community of flourishing democracies.” Democracies, by structure and disposition, have a partiality toward cooperation and conciliation. But in preaching democracy to others, India needs to appreciate the value of consistency, courage and credibility.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.