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As Middle East erupts in protest, India finds comfort on the fence

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2011; 7:49 PM

NEW DELHI - When the leader of the world's largest democracy was asked whether he supported the popular uprisings in Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain, his first instinct seemed to be to try to avoid the question.

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"We have 5 million Indians working in the gulf countries, and if peace is not prevalent, if orderly processes of the management of the economy and polity break down, that could affect this vital community of Indian citizens," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a televised news conference this week.

But sir, the editor from the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera pressed, do you support the revolution in the Middle East?

Singh looked hesitant.

"Let me say, if the people of Egypt want to move toward the processes of democratization, they have our good wishes. And that's true of all countries," he said. "Though we do not believe it is our business to advise other countries, we welcome the dawn of democracy everywhere."

From the uprisings in the Middle East to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran and Burma, New Delhi often seems to be looking for an inconspicuous perch on the fence.

But as India draws into a closer partnership with the United States, campaigns for a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council and grows into a global power, it is finding that its opinion increasingly matters, that it is increasingly being asked to take sides - that the fence will not take its weight.

Noninterference pledge

This month, as the uprising in Egypt gathered pace, the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi issued statements widely seen here as verging on the evasive, recognizing the people's aspirations for reform while hoping the situation would be resolved in a peaceful manner.

"Such severe circumspection is unbecoming of a rising global power," the Indian Express newspaper complained this week. "If the world is to take you seriously, you have to demonstrate for its benefit that you do so yourself."

A former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, now in opposition, put it even more bluntly. "If you sit for too long on a fence, the fence enters your soul," he said.

India's deep commitment to the principles of noninterference in another country's affairs, and its own perceived geopolitical interests, do not always sit easily with its belief in democracy, especially when popular uprisings break out in places such as Egypt, Iran and Burma.

Its visceral allergy to outside interference also stems from its own disputed rule in Kashmir and unwelcome Security Council resolutions on Kashmir dating back to the years just after independence.

Lecture from Obama

In Washington, there is a feeling that India has to decide what kind of global power it wishes to be. With increased power comes increased responsibility, President Obama warned on his November visit, as he threw his weight behind India's Security Council bid but at the same time complained that India had too often been silent about human rights abuses elsewhere.

"Speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries," he said. "It's not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It's staying true to our democratic principles."

That lecture, in front of India's Parliament, struck a "jarring note," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. India's rapidly growing energy needs, and its strategic competition with China, mean it simply cannot cut its ties to countries such as Iran and Burma. Indeed, the West's withdrawal from those nations had simply allowed China to "fill the vacuum," Sibal said.

Although Obama urged India to take stronger action against the regime in Burma, it is over Iran that the foreign policy tensions between India and the United States are arguably at their sharpest. They could come to a head this year, officials in Washington warn, with India a rotating member of the Security Council and fresh votes on further sanctions a distinct possibility.

Although New Delhi shares U.S. concerns about Tehran's nuclear aspirations, it has come out strongly against further sanctions, not only because of its significant oil imports from Iran but also because of its large Shiite Muslim population. Upon which side of the fence it ultimately decides to alight, administration officials say, could be a big test of its new strategic partnership with Washington.


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