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Our Manmohan in India

It's time for America to do right by our democratic ally

By Eoghan W. Stafford

Bush and Kerry are working hard to drum up support, but neither, to date, has received any letters written in blood urging them to be president—at least not from prominent politicians. But then, not every country can have such drama-packed politics as India. First the incumbent prime minister and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were trounced by India’s Congress party, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born wife and daughter-in-law of two former prime ministers. Then Gandhi declared that she would decline the post she had just won, prompting members of her party to descend on her home in droves, some of them writing letters in their own blood urging her to change her mind, others threatening to commit suicide if she did not assume the leadership of the country.

Nonetheless, Gandhi stuck by her decision and, as a result, a rather promising leader has been catapulted to India’s helm in her place, Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist. This shake-up could prove historic for India and provide America with a chance to turn over a new leaf in our behavior toward the nation, which has been less than considerate lately.

As a Sikh, Singh is the first member of a religious minority to lead India. As an advocate of secular government, he will be a welcome antidote to outgoing Prime Minister Vajpayee who once declared, “These days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence.” And under Singh’s tenure, India could begin to emerge from large-scale poverty. As finance minister in the early 1990s, Singh began the effort to scale back India’s mammoth bureaucracy. At the same time, Singh acknowledges that much work needs to be done to spread the benefits of India’s economic growth to the rural majority.

America should take this opportunity to reengage with a vital regional ally with tangible gestures of goodwill. To begin with, the demonizing of outsourcing, which can be heard from both parties, needs to end. It’s easy for politicians to forget when they attack “jobs going to India,” that millions of workers and families in India desperately need that investment. Besides, allowing capital to go where it is most productive means cheaper products for American consumers, too, and cheaper inputs for domestic American business. Instead of throwing sand in the gears of globalization, we should ensure that the benefits of trade reach all Americans, through adequate investments in higher education, social services and a safety net capable of catching those who temporarily lose their jobs in the shuffle. (Hint: slashing taxes and creating deficits that undermine our ability to pay for such programs does not make that effort any easier.)

We also need to rethink our chummy support for Pakistan’s military regime. Referring to the beneficiary (and initiator) of a military coup as “a courageous leader and a friend of the United States,” as Bush has described President Musharaff, and inviting him to take part in joint press conferences with the Secretary of Defense, sends the wrong message about America’s commitment to democracy. In fact, as The American Prospect recently pointed out, our government’s financial support for brutal authoritarian regimes throughout Central Asia has increased substantially since September 11. It’s hard to imagine what could be more shortsighted than fighting terror by undermining democracy. At the same time, by showering affection on India’s autocratic neighbors, we cheapen our ties with India itself.

America could also demonstrate support for Mr. Singh’s commitment to sound development policies, by increasing our paltry development aid to India. We spend a pittance on development in general (less than 16 billion dollars last year, or about 0.014 percent of our Gross National Product). But we spend a pitiful portion of that pittance on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa: just $3 billion. A real commitment to India’s development would not only reward their market-based approach to fighting poverty, but also help solidify the bond between our two nations.

The U.S. can’t just dabble in democracy promotion. Toppling a couple regimes won’t prove our commitment to spreading democracy if we don’t also support our long-time democratic allies and reward efforts toward prosperity and religious pluralism which sustain democracy. As we try to win the support of Iraqis, strengthen the pro-democracy elements of Iran’s civil society against their theocratic rulers and inspire people from North Korea to Libya to dream of self-governance, we have to stand behind countries like India. In our quest for the hearts and minds of peoples across the world, ending our policy of malign neglect toward India would make an “in-Delhi-able” impression.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.

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