Last November, 131 million Americans voted, and the whole world took notice. Over the last month, about 700 million Indians voted, and most Americans, like most of the world, didn’t much notice.
To be sure, American elections are more important to people all over the world than those in any other country. But the election in India is more important to Americans than most of us realize. Including, perhaps, our president.
This was not always so. During the Cold War, India was something of a de facto ally of the Soviet Union. This was due in part to our alliance with its rival neighbor Pakistan, but also to a feeling of solidarity with the U.S.S.R. on the part of the ruling Congress Party and its two historic leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
The Congress vision of India was built on three pillars: socialism, autarky and secularism. Socialism meant a government-driven economy policed by a Permit Raj — government bureaucrats had to approve every economic change. Autarky meant cutting India off from world trade, so that local industries could grow. Secularism meant toleration of religious diversity in a nation with both a large Hindu majority and the world’s second-largest Muslim population.
The fall of the Soviet Union removed two of these three pillars. Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now prime minister, began dismantling the Permit Raj. Successive governments led by the Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist BJP opened up India to trade, and export industries grew. Secularism remained, embraced by the Congress and not entirely repudiated by the BJP.
With the de facto alliance with the Soviets defunct, India was now open to an American alliance. Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit India in years. George W. Bush moved further, cultivating closer ties with India and signing and getting ratified a nuclear cooperation treaty.
It became obvious that we had much in common. Both countries have a large and capable military, both have nuclear weapons, both have electoral democracies and English common law traditions, and both are prime targets of Islamist extremists. After Sept. 11, when Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf made a U-turn and promised to help the United States in Afghanistan, he did so in the awareness that the United States had a friend on the other side of his border.
India also has the potential to contain the power of China, in conjunction with other well-armed democracies around its periphery — Japan, South Korea and Australia. Its economy has been growing almost as fast as China’s, and it now has a middle class of perhaps 200 million people.
The election held over four weeks in April and May has produced a result very much to our advantage. The Congress Party has been returned to power with a larger share of the vote than indicated by pre-election and exit polls and will no longer need Communists and left-wingers for majorities in the Lok Sabha. The BJP attacked Congress for being too close to the United States; voters evidently decided that this was not a minus but a plus.
All of which puts the ball in Barack Obama’s court. He has scarcely mentioned India in public since he became president, even as he has been making emollient noises to the mullah regime in Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, said publicly she wouldn’t object to China’s abuses of human rights, while India has worked hard to uphold human rights.
The United States is preoccupied with the turmoil inside Pakistan, as well as with Pakistan’s problematic role in the fight against the Taliban. But building closer relations with India would give us more leverage in Islamabad. Clinton, who played a constructive role in her husband’s outreach to India, should understand this. Perhaps Obama does, too.
But it’s hard to tell. Obama has continued military operations in Iraq and stepped them up in Afghanistan, but otherwise he is banking heavily on the proposition that he can persuade those who have been our sworn enemies that they should be our friends. Maybe that will work. But in the meantime, it would not hurt to show some solicitude for our friends in India, with whom we share strategic interests and moral principles. The 700 million voters of India have chosen to be our ally. We should take them up on it.