Commentary Magazine

Is India an Ally?

Last fall, to mark the 60th year of national independence, the government of India and the Confederation of Indian Industry launched a public-relations blitz in New York to coincide with the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. Glitzy society dinners, corporate powwows, giant screens in Times Square, and colorful advertisements at bus shelters and atop taxis flaunted the emblems of the new India: skinny supermodels, well-heeled shoppers, and hi-tech entrepreneurs.

It seems only yesterday that India was more likely to be associated with images of snake charmers in teeming bazaars and mendicants in squalid cities. If the old India brought to mind the leathern visage of Mother Teresa, for the new India it is the perfectly groomed Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World. A country that once attracted Western charities and dharma bums now beckons to CEO’s hoping to shore up the bottom line.

Perhaps nowhere is India’s makeover more striking than in the realm of diplomatic relations with the West. Through most of the cold war, U.S.-India ties were frosty and often antagonistic. Today, it is hard to find an American political observer on either side of the ideological spectrum who is not favorably disposed to the new global player. In a 2006 article in Foreign Affairs, Ashton B. Carter, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy during the Clinton administration, hailed India as “a strategically located democratic country of growing economic importance” and endorsed the Bush administration’s overtures to New Delhi. Henry Kissinger has said that “the geopolitical objectives of India . . . are quite parallel to ours.” Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, asserts that India is “crucial to our struggle against jihadism, as well as to our management of the balance of power with China.” Charles Krauthammer has argued that the U.S. should make India a central ally and nominate it for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The new regard for India has already borne fruit in the form of a landmark agreement on nuclear cooperation that was announced by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005. The deal gives India access to advanced civil nuclear technology that it has been denied since it first tested a nuclear weapon in 1974—this, despite New Delhi’s refusal to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty or curb its nuclear-weapons program. Significantly, the amendment to U.S. law that made the agreement possible, the so-called Hyde Act, enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, with backers including Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry and Republicans like John McCain, Tom Tancredo, and Rick Santorum.

Supporters of the deal point to a host of benefits for the U.S., the environment, and world peace. India, it is said, will buy American nuclear technology, cut its dependence on its notoriously polluting coal-fired power plants, and bring its existing civilian reactors under international safeguards. But the underlying rationale of the agreement remains geopolitical. Washington’s calculation is that India’s rise is both benign and in America’s strategic interest. Hence, the reasoning goes, the U.S. ought to do what it can (in the words of Condoleezza Rice) “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.”

How firm is the foundation on which these hopes lie?



Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1947, India has taken a largely parallel approach to economics on the one hand and international politics on the other. The country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a Brahmin and a Fabian Socialist with a patrician disdain for business. (“Profit,” he once remarked, is a word “I consider dirty.”) Enamored of the Soviet Union’s experiment in state planning, Nehru harnessed his vision of modern India to state control of the economy’s commanding heights. In 1955, his Congress party, which was to dominate parliament more or less uninterruptedly for a half-century, declared that “planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control.”

Analogously, in the parallel track of foreign policy, Nehru spearheaded the non-aligned movement (NAM): an alliance of third-world countries whose aim (as the 1979 Havana Declaration would later summarize) was to protect “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security” of its members in their joint “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, Zionism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference, or hegemony, as well as against great-power and bloc politics.”

In theory, the NAM was intended to keep New Delhi independent of both Moscow and Washington. In practice, beginning with India’s failure to condemn the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary, both the movement’s worldview and its rhetoric tilted conspicuously toward the Kremlin. This, along with the stark Dullesian division of the world into friend or foe, helps explain the frigid state of U.S.-India relations for many years, and the contrasting warmth of America’s embrace of a much more pliant Pakistan.

The twin foundations laid by Nehru would only harden under his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who took office in 1966 and, apart from a three-year interregnum in the late 1970’s, ruled until her assassination in 1984. Mrs. Gandhi nationalized banks, ratcheted up the highest marginal income-tax rate to 97.5 percent, and brought India’s infamous license-permit regime—consisting of bureaucratic oversight of private business, production quotas, and price controls—to its zenith. These policies, no more successful in India than they proved anywhere else in the world, guaranteed more than two decades of stagnation and inspired the disparaging economic moniker, “Hindu rate of growth.”

By the 1980’s, the cumulative effects of Nehruvian socialism had become too glaring to ignore. If, in 1964 (the year Nehru died), India’s per-capita income had been just over half that of South Korea, by 1984 the average South Korean was four times richer than the average Indian. Even Indonesia, an economic basket case in the 1960’s, had comfortably overtaken India, a country where even the relatively well-to-do needed either connections or infinite patience or both to acquire such basic amenities as a telephone or a cooking-gas cylinder. Similarly on the foreign-policy front: by the mid-1980’s, most East Asian nations had in effect seceded from the grouping of former colonies that India still presumed to lead.



It was Indira Gandhi’s son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, who in the late 1980’s took the first gingerly steps toward easing the government’s grip on the economy. But only after Rajiv’s own assassination did a new prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, initiate real change. In 1991, faced with a balance-of-payments crisis, Rao appointed the Oxford-educated technocrat Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister, as his finance minister. Singh proceeded to scrap most licensing programs, reduce tariffs, and open the door to foreign investment. Almost as if on cue, growth rates, exports, and foreign-exchange reserves began to rise.

Economic growth, however, failed to rejuvenate the electoral fortunes of the Congress party, which during the 1990’s lost what had been a near-monopoly on both federal and provincial power. New regional and caste-based parties and, especially, a newly resurgent Hindu-nationalist movement spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed vote share from the steadily shrinking Congress. Between 1996 and 2004, India was ruled by three non-Congress prime ministers, including the BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004), the only non-Congressman to serve a full term as prime minister.

Happily, this political turbulence has not stalled the economic dynamism set in motion by Singh. Between 1991 and 2006, per-capita income (in terms of purchasing-power parity) more than doubled from $1,400 to $3,800. The ranks of the middle class, broadly defined, have swelled to over 250 million people, by some measures the largest in the world. Today, more Indians buy cell phones each month than any other people.

The same story can be told on the corporate and macroeconomic level. Since liberalization, twelve Indian firms—spanning banking, pharmaceuticals, software, and services—have listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and three on the technology-heavy NASDAQ. Last year, Tata Steel, a leading private firm, finalized an $11.3-billion purchase of the Dutch steelmaker Corus. Overall, the economy expanded by a robust 9.4 percent in 2006, and foreign direct investment nearly tripled over the previous year to $16 billion. Foreign-exchange reserves stand at $230 billion.

Side by side with this opening-up of India’s economy have come changes in attitudes toward the West. Indians today are among the most pro-American people in Asia. A recent Pew Center survey of “global attitudes” found that about six in ten Indians hold a favorable view of the United States. Correspondingly, both official and people-to-people ties between the two countries have advanced, helped no doubt by the cultural bridge-building of the prosperous community of Indian Americans, now some 2.5-million strong. In a gesture of great symbolic importance, India vocally supported the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, pledging $750 million in aid for the fledgling democracy and undertaking to erect its new parliament building. Recently, the American and Indian navies joined together with their Australian and Singapore counterparts for five days of exercises off the Malabar coast, the first such joint activity of its kind.



It is on such robust particulars that the geopolitical “case” for India has been built. Here, we are reminded, is a fellow democracy, the world’s largest, with an English-speaking elite and legal and political institutions shaped by nearly a century of experience as a British colony. Moreover, as a third-world country whose people are being lifted out of poverty without the heavy-handed aid of a benevolent dictatorship, India is living proof that democracy and the rule of law work, and its capitalist economy, free press, and cultural pluralism can serve as a beacon to other developing countries.

There is more. India’s longstanding feud with Pakistan, and its experience with outbreaks of Muslim violence at home, are said to have given it a special sensitivity to the problem of radical Islam, something that Western countries have only recently awakened to. Home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, India offers an example to democracies struggling to integrate their own Muslims, and a rebuke to those who argue that democracy and Islam are incompatible. New Delhi’s participation will thus be a vital component in any sustained international effort to bring order to the Muslim world at large.

Finally, India shares America’s concerns about the rise of China, which sits on its northern and eastern borders, and with which it fought a short and sharp border war in 1962. India’s million-man army, the world’s fourth largest, and its blue-water navy make it a natural buffer as well as a sentinel on the trade route between East Asia and the Middle East. By the middle of the century, a demographically and economically vibrant India can serve as a counterweight not only to expanding Chinese influence in Southeast Asia but also to Beijing’s great-power ambitions in other places around the globe.



Thus the good news. But there is another side to the balance sheet, beginning with the realities of India’s economy. By the benchmark of its own past, India has indeed come a long way. But compared with the rest of the world it remains poor. In per-capita income, the World Bank ranks India 146th, between Syria and Georgia. The average Chinese, whose income was about equal to that of the average Indian two decades ago, is now more than twice as wealthy, and the gap is widening. With a female literacy rate of 46 percent, India lags behind Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Southeast Asia’s poorest countries. It is at number 120 on the World Bank index that measures ease of doing business, and 72 on the corruption index maintained by Transparency International (an organization that combats graft).

In short, India is a long way from being an economic powerhouse, let alone the developed country of official fantasy. Unfortunately, it also manifests a dangerous inability (or unwillingness) to confront the economic mistakes of its past—thus raising the specter of their repetition. Congress-party leaders can hardly open their mouths without invoking the Nehru-Gandhis, and even the BJP has refrained from harsh characterization of their rule, including on the matter of their disastrous economic policies. Thus, while islands of the Indian economy are indisputably joining the digital age, much of the country’s political vocabulary remains tethered to the bullock cart.

That, moreover, is where many of India’s leading intellectuals would have it stay. Whatever the pace of its economic modernization, India has easily kept up with the West in producing its share of privileged devotees of the anti-globalization Left. Arundhati Roy, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, believes that telephone call centers are “part of the corporate culture, which is taking away land and resources and water from millions of rural people.” (Never mind the myriads of jobs they have created.) In her 2004 collection of essays, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, she cautions India against cooperating with the U.S. in the war on terror, defined by her as “a superpower’s self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, [and] global hegemony.” In similar fashion, Vandana Shiva, a distinguished scientist and leading public intellectual, has been organizing protests against corporate expansion of the retail sector—apparently on the grounds that increased consumer choice represents a mortal threat to Indian national identity.

These and similar gestures of solidarity with the permanently underdeveloped world have had a baleful influence in politics. In the 2004 national election, the Congress party came back to power on a populist platform, asserting that the economic reforms had benefited only the rich.* After taking office, the new government dismantled the ministry that had been charged with privatizing state-owned enterprises. Then, summoning Indira Gandhi’s ghost, it authored a law “guaranteeing” employment for adults in rural areas in a third of the country’s districts. As in the past, the greatest beneficiaries of this boondoggle have been not the poor but corrupt local bureaucrats and contractors—which has not prevented the government from promising last September to extend the program nationwide. Meanwhile, much-needed reforms of practices ranging from antiquated labor laws to government subsidies for fuel and fertilizer remain stalled. 

Such ghosts of the past lurk in foreign policy as well. Despite all the progress of recent years, it seems that India cannot shake the habit, cultivated over the decades of the cold war, of measuring its sovereignty in terms of opposition to the United States. Exhibit A in this regard is the agreement intended to operationalize nuclear cooperation. Although it arguably gives much to India while asking very little in return, parliamentary opposition to the deal has been surprisingly vigorous. The Communist parties on which the Congress party relies for its majority have threatened to topple the government if it presses ahead. Sensing political advantage, even the BJP, widely regarded as more pro-American than Congress, publicly opposes the deal. As for those Indians, mainly middle-class, who support the agreement, they do not vote.

Then there is the China question. Despite confident predictions that India will surpass the People’s Republic, it is no less plausible that, twenty years from now, China’s economic, military, and cultural heft will so dwarf India’s that comparisons between the two countries will have become altogether meaningless. This, coupled with the demands of domestic politics, could cause India to slip back definitively into its historical comfort zone as an almost reflexively anti-Western power with an officially non-aligned policy—only this time calibrated to tiptoe around Beijing’s sensitivities rather than Moscow’s.

And on the opposite side geographically there is Iran. Officially, India opposes a nuclear-armed Iran; at the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has twice voted to refer the Islamic Republic to the UN Security Council. Still, the government’s public statements remain equivocal, tending to emphasize Tehran’s right to nuclear energy more than they do the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of a theocratic regime. A clear-cut warning to the mullahs from a leader of the developing world might help rob the Iranians of their ability to frame the nuclear issue in terms of Islam versus the West. But even a hint of such a policy would lay the government open to the charge of craven surrender to Washington.



A major consideration here is, of course, the risk of riling India’s 150-million-strong Muslim minority, among whom is the world’s second-largest population of Shiites (after Iran).

Most Indian Muslims are peaceful, and the community contributes much to the fabric of national life—most visibly in sports, movies, and the arts. Nor is religious zealotry in India a Muslim monopoly. Nonetheless, the widely touted notion that Indian Islam is uniquely tolerant, or somehow immune to Islamist sentiment, does not bear scrutiny.

Unlike in Western democracies, Muslims in India are permitted by law to be governed by shari’a in civil matters like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. A consequence of this autonomy has been the development of parallel societies in ghettoized enclaves of the sort that today’s Dutch, British, and French have begun scrambling to contain. Most of India’s Muslim middle class emigrated to Pakistan at partition 60 years ago; in much of the community that remained, cultural markers of backwardness like high birthrates and an aversion to the education of females have persisted. As a result, Muslim literacy rates and incomes lag behind the national average.

The community has also given birth—via Deobandism, the subcontinental cousin of Wahhabism—to an outlook whose purest form is embodied in the Taliban. Moreover, Abul Ala Maududi, who along with the Egyptians Sayyid Qutb and Hasan al-Banna was one of the founders of modern Sunni Islamism, spent more of his life in India than in Pakistan, the country with which he is usually associated.It was in India that Maududi formulated and expounded many of his ideas about a society and state run strictly according to the dictates of shari’a. In a survey of Indian Muslims conducted by the U.S.-based Pakistani scholar Akbar Ahmed, a majority picked as their contemporary role models Maududi, the 19th-century Muslim supremacist Sayyed Ahmad Khan, and an influential Bombay-based cleric named Zakir Naik, who publicly praises Osama bin Laden and calls for all Indians to be governed by shari’a.

Not surprisingly, then, Indian Islam has not gone untouched by the jihadist trends in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, in recent years more civilians have been killed in India as a result of Islamic terror than in any other country aside from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq. In October 2005, on the eve of the Hindu festival of Diwali, bombs in crowded marketplaces and on a public bus in Delhi claimed 62 lives. In 2006, a series of blasts on commuter trains killed 209 in Bombay. Last August, 42 people died in attacks on a restaurant and open-air auditorium in Hyderabad. Nor has the mayhem been confined to large cities. In March 2006, twin bombings killed fourteen people in the Hindu-temple town of Varanasi, and just last November another 13 people died in coordinated bombings in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

While the attacks have been plausibly blamed on groups like the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and Bangladesh’s Harkat-ul Jihad-al-Islami, these movements do not appear to have had much trouble recruiting accomplices from among their co-religionists in India. Western observers like the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman are fond of pointing to a supposed lack of Indian-Muslim involvement in international terrorism—a bromide that should have been put to rest by the revelation that Indian doctors played a significant role in last year’s failed attacks in London and Glasgow.

In this realm, the arrangement of Indian politics is a recipe for paralysis. Muslims are believed to vote as a bloc—a notion that, whether true or not, gives them enormous influence in a fragmented polity with a first-past-the-post electoral system where 35 percent of the vote often ensures victory. Since Muslims constitute upward of 20 percent of the electorate in about 80 parliamentary constituencies, and at least 15 percent in another 40 or so, a large turnout of Muslim voters is often decisive.

The consequences can be seen in a number of recent developments. In 2004, a leading candidate for public office in the northern state of Bihar enlisted the help of a bin Laden look-alike to campaign for Muslim votes. (The candidate won and is now a federal minister.) Two years later, a minister in the government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, offered a reward of $11 million for anyone who would behead the Danish cartoonists responsible for “disrespectful” drawings of the prophet Muhammad. In Hyderabad, parts of which are Muslim strongholds, three sitting legislators of a local Islamic party recently roughed up Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author who has been critical of her country’s treatment of its Hindu minority and Islam’s treatment of women. In November the army had to be called in to quell rioters in Calcutta whose demands included Nasreen’s expulsion from India. A leading Muslim politician in the southern state of Kerala is a declared Islamist who spent nine years in prison for his role in a 1998 terrorist attack that killed 46 people. And so forth.



And yet, despite all this, most Indian leftists and secularists persist in the belief that the primary threat to the country’s secular fabric remains Hindu nationalism. This may have been a sensible posture 60 years ago, when a newly independent India sought to reassure its Muslims that they would live as equals in a Hindu-majority country. But by now, and notwithstanding the occasional excesses by Hindu militants that have rightly been condemned, it has descended to the level of farce. A recent, much ballyhooed government report on the socioeconomic situation of Indian Muslims sought to explain away the statistics on entrenched Muslim poverty and educational and professional underachievement by pointing to an alleged “six decades of institutional neglect and bias.” It then recommended measures—like preferential discrimination and quotas for government jobs—more likely to perpetuate than to erase the sense of separateness, and the refusal to abandon outmoded customs, that lie at the root of the problem.

As in Europe, Indian Muslim groups and leftists have begun to band together. In the massive protests that greeted President Bush’s visit to India in 2006, leftist icons like Arundhati Roy provided the star power, Communists the organization, and Muslims the numbers. Bush, despite having done more for India than any other U.S. President in terms of trade and security cooperation, was denied the honor of addressing parliament, and had to make do with a speech in the shadow of an old fort that houses the national zoo.

Another target of agitation is Israel, one of India’s most steadfast friends since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 and currently its second-largest supplier of arms. During the 2006 conflict with Hizballah in southern Lebanon, a Communist member of parliament denounced Israel’s military actions as “genocide”; the body ended up passing a one-sided resolution condemning the “large-scale and indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Lebanon.”

The long-term prospects for a deeper alliance among Communists, left-leaning parties, and Muslims threatened by globalization are too stark to be ignored. Of the six states in which the Muslim population is above the national average of 14 percent, five are located in the densely populated northern and eastern regions that have been largely untouched by rising living standards in the coastal states of the south and west. The two states of Kerala and West Bengal, each of which is about 25-percent Muslim, are also Communist strongholds.



The rapprochement between India and America has been one of the most striking outgrowths of the end of the cold war. India has come a long way since the early 1990’s. It boasts an energetic middle class, a clutch of world-class companies, and an increasingly influential diaspora. The country’s sheer size—by population the equivalent of 40 Malaysias or more than twelve Egypts—means that even modest advances at home will ripple across Asia and the globe.

But the jury remains out on the longer term. Until India is able to view itself and its history dispassionately, reject the twin failures of socialism and non-alignment, modernize its Muslim citizens and bring their aspirations in line with those of the Hindu majority, it will likely remain an underachiever—and, for the U.S. and the West, an uncertain friend.



* In fact, the number of people living below the poverty line declined from more than a third of the population to about a fifth, and India’s gini coefficient, a standard measure of inequality, is lower than that of China or the U.S.

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