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THE INDIAN ELECTION AND THE BUSH PRESIDENCY: DOING SOMETHING RIGHT IN SOUTH ASIA

By Tom Plate

May 4, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Expediency is no new thing in global geopolitics, of course. When the horrible events of 9/11 prompted the Bush administration to launch a calculated charm offensive toward Pakistan, Afghanistan's next-door neighbor, the dramatic diplomatic pivot seemed inconsistent with U.S. friendship with India. But Pakistan was so close to Afghanistan, in more ways than one, that no U.S. administration could have done otherwise.

It was no easy trick to move closer to Pakistan while not pushing away India. But the Bush administration has worked hard to strike the delicate balance, even though Pakistan can hardly be described as a democracy whereas India is the world largest.

We are preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, but let's look at the numbers: Together their population adds up to 54 million. By contrast, Pakistan's is 151 million, India's is 1.1 billion, and both are nuclear powers.

That's why the Bush administration skillfully intervened several times to defuse tensions between the two, and, in November, 2001, President George W. Bush put on a good show during a getting-to-know you summit with India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Since then, top Washington officials have been toting up the frequent-flier miles with diplomatically worthwhile trips to the subcontinent.

A second factor lowering tensions is the surprisingly steady performance of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, former maximum military leader and current "elected" president. With al Qaeda and others still roaming the country's hinterlands, his job as leader of Muslim Pakistan might just well be one of the world toughest.

Then there's India's Prime Minister Vajpayee, who, as he inches toward middle age at 80, looks to be carving out a substantial niche in Indian political history. He has presided over the long-awaited blast-off of the Indian economy and has met productively with his Pakistani counterpart in an effort, still ongoing, to bury old hatchets, especially the tense disputed Kashmir territory that's two-thirds Muslim and the rest Hindu.

Most of all, this curious politician -- half poet, quarter mystic, a man of few words but big ideas -- has been pouring balm on the roiled religious waters of an India that is predominantly Hindu but which may be home to more Muslims than almost anywhere else. It's true that his political party -- the BJP -- has historically stoked the Hindu flames of anti-Muslim animosity, but the prime minister has induced his team, for this current national parliamentary election due to wind up in about a week, to take the high road and spurn inflammatory pit stops.

No doubt BJP's motives for good behavior are more electoral than spiritual: Key constituency results may hinge on keeping Muslim turnout low, and thus anti-BJP fervor under control. But even if the effort at religious sensitivity may be more campaign rhetoric than heartfelt reality, it's nice to see it in the India under Vajpayee (pronounced "Vahj-pie").

Also contributing to a better triangular relationship among Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington is the U.S. ambassador there. He is high-flying financier David C. Mulford, Oxford educated, who has been moving between U.S. government and private-sector establishment posts all his life. However, he is not a party hack appointed to diplomatic positions because he has nothing better to do with his time; on the contrary, he has brought to the task, with his expertise in finance, a passion for leading India to the next economic level. The key, he says, is India's development of a first-class infrastructure, "which should be taken up as a priority, equal to that of fighting a war."

And if the presumably reelected Vajpayee government can manage to avoid war with Pakistan, it may have the wherewithal to do precisely what Mulford rightly recommends. Careering forward with an economic growth rate of 8-10 percent annually, India could well become a world economic superpower, taking its rightful place among the globe's giants. What's more, a mature India focused on economic development instead of religious conflict could help make Musharraf's job a little easier by proffering Pakistan a sense of nonmalevolent intent.

Prosperity for the Indian subcontinent will depend on peace in India and Pakistan as well as throughout Asia. And this will require Hindus and Muslims to live together as civilized peoples, not in atavistic warring camps. Vajpayee may not be the second coming of Nehru, but he seems exactly the statesman the times demand. As for the Bush administration -- rocked by so many setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan -- let it be said that, for all appearances, it is doing something right in South Asia.

 
 

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