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Opinion: President Bush Sets America Right on India

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-08

In signing a historic and highly lenient nuclear treaty with India last week, but withholding similar concessions from its rival Pakistan, President Bush signaled that "parity" isn't a concept to be applied universally in contemporary diplomacy.

He offered public recognition to the fact that democratic India's value as a political ally and economic partner far exceeded Pakistan's capacity or potential to be a significant player in the Bush administration's global campaign of spreading democracy and the free market.

In what could be cited as a contrapuntal turnaround, Mr. Bush also underscored an important personal article of faith - that democracies must be strengthened by supporting them, and democracies must be supported by strengthening them.

In doing so, Mr. Bush ended Washington's longstanding practice of treating the world's biggest democracy and one of its most authoritarian military regimes as though they were separate but equal siblings. Almost from the time that the British partitioned the Indian Subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, successive American administrations have perceived Pakistan as a close ally because of its leaders' willingness to appear politically and diplomatically aligned. India, on the other hand, rode the high moral horse of nonalignment, one that consistently chose to graze in the ideological meadows of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

The collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union came at a time when key Indian leaders - among them the man who's now India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh - realized that adherence to socialism had badly affected the country's prospects of alleviating poverty and achieving prosperity. Guided by New York-based economist Jagdish Bhagwati, Mr. Singh and others sought to jettison socialist shibboleths, and to liberalize the economy.

Mr. Bush hailed the yields of their labor last week. He pointed to India's impressive annual economic growth, its burgeoning middle class that had become the free world's biggest market, and to the technical and entrepreneurial talent that is driving sustainable development in a land of 1.2 billion people.

In earlier eras, a visiting American president would have pleased the Indians simply by talking about aid. But last week, Mr. Bush's talk was about enhanced trade. This more than pleased his hosts; they flew into a frenzy of delight that gave a fillip to the pageantry and popular enthusiasm that generally greeted Mr. Bush.

It was striking that the protestors who burned American flags and effigies of Mr. Bush were mostly Muslims: India has the world's second largest cohort of Muslims, after Indonesia. And bringing up the rear flank of the protestors were familiar figures such as Arundhati Roy. The predictably anti-American views of the novelist-agitator would be more credible were she to dispense with the pecuniary and personal tributes she extracts from her friends in the liberal salons of Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Curiously, some of these same liberals seem chagrined that President Bush chose to lavishly praise India's democracy and free-market economy. One would have thought that notions such as democracy and a growing economy that brought prosperity to the proletariat would resonate nicely among liberals. But too many of them still seem to be brooding over the sweeping out of socialism in India's corridors of power.

Other critics charged Mr. Bush with excessively favoring India over a more traditional ally, Pakistan. They suggested that India and Pakistan would now embark on a renewed nuclear militarization.

That's hardly likely to happen. It's inconceivable that Mr. Bush did not obtain binding assurances from both countries that they would contain their nuclear ambitions. India has to do little more than watch Pakistan implode because of its domestic strife; it doesn't need to gird its nuclear loins any more than it already has.

Mr. Bush wasn't entirely dismissive of Pakistan, as some of his liberal critics suggest. It is not that the president has overlooked Pakistan's contribution to the global campaign against Islamic terrorism. Mr. Bush applauded Pakistani President Musharraf's support, even though its depth and diligence could be debated.

But Mr. Bush was also entirely right in pointing out to the Muslim strongman that he hadn't kept his word concerning free elections. Mr. Musharraf promised such elections when he seized power six years ago.

The president's critics have seized on his scolding of Mr. Musharraf. As the New York Times said yesterday in a pained editorial, "It's just baffling why Mr. Bush traveled halfway around the world to stand right next to one of his most important allies against terrorists - and embarrass him."

It's actually baffling why the Times' editorial board is baffled. Presidential visits often are a mix of political theater and private bargaining. Mr. Bush well knows that Mr. Musharraf cannot afford to act on his pledge. That's because any free and fair election that is now held in Pakistan would result in an overwhelming victory for Islamists. The alliance with America would be the first casualty, and an escalation of state-sponsored terrorism against India would be inevitable. Pakistan's Islamists have never accepted the legitimacy of India's constitutional secularism.

They also haven't accepted India's claims over Kashmir, the mostly Muslim mountainous territory that both India and Pakistan want to integrate into their sovereignty. Mr. Bush knows that most of the terrorists who operate in Kashmir receive their training and funding from Pakistan. He knows, too, that while Mr. Musharraf has vowed to crack down on these terrorists, his intelligence services are among their prime backers.

Mr. Bush surely knows that there is quite possibly no more fragile regime in Asia than that of President Musharraf. In openly embracing India, he is buying insurance for American interests in a geopolitically volatile region where, not the last, China's hegemonistic ambitions are being freshly stoked. He is proclaiming that Indian democracy - like its much older sibling in America - is simply not perishable.

Mr. Bush also seems to be signaling his view that untidy and messy democracies will trump dictatorships every time. While democracy is stable in India, it's scarcely steady - not with a ruling coalition of 14 disputatious parties.

When he landed in Pakistan, Mr. Bush must have surely dreamed of what might be - a tumultuous theocratic society transformed into a spirited democracy, even with an Islamic patina. When he left India, Mr. Bush realized that the vision of freedom and free markets that he has so frequently sketched for developing societies everywhere had, indeed, already long been in place. All he had to do what to give the Indians a much appreciated pat on the back.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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