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.