YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


India's 'New' Agenda Warrants Closer Attention

September 15, 2000|JAMES CLAD | James Clad, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, in the 1990s was South Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review

More than 2 million Indian Americans, many of the richest U.S. corporations and both presidential candidates are closely interested in the visit today of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Washington.

The Vajpayee visit straddles two agendas for future U.S.-India ties. The old familiar agenda, a plaything of bureaucrats and foreign policy specialists, remains in thrall to various anxieties. India's nuclear ambitions alarm the nonproliferation specialists in Washington. President Clinton has described the Kashmir region, disputed between India and Pakistan since 1947, as "the most dangerous place in the world."

The "old" India agenda also focuses on poverty and social issues. Thirty percent of the world's poorest people live in India. Child labor, societal attitudes toward women, coal-generated electricity causing global warming concerns and fears about the AIDS pandemic also figure prominently in the list of worries.

By contrast, a newer but narrower agenda is transforming the U.S. connection with this rising Asian power. In recent months, business journalists have gushed over info-tech entrepreneurs in India and the U.S. The sheer size of India's domestic market mesmerizes American companies. India's 6% growth performance since 1997 has shamed the East Asian "miracle economies."

Enormous infrastructure needs, especially electricity shortfalls, beckon technical solutions and financing from outsiders. Major U.S. corporations expanding business in India these days include General Electric, ExxonMobil, Ford, Enron, IBM, Unocal, Citibank and Chase.

To be sure, India's glacial pace of change can be maddening. During the 1990s, China attracted 45 times more foreign investment than India. And Indians still joke that theirs "is the country of the future, and always will be." But India's once-shuttered markets are nonetheless yielding to the demands of global commerce.

A crucial element in the new India agenda is the dynamic place of Indian Americans. They figure, in this election year, both as conscientious voters and generous donors. These 1970s-era arrivals have become the richest single immigrant group in the U.S.; they include the entrepreneurs who created and E-Lock Technologies, a firm pioneering secure electronic commercial transactions.

In my meetings with Vajpayee in recent years, I've been struck by two of his attributes: simplicity and focus. Indians point out that he has "neither family nor a firm"--meaning that, in an Asia with legendary nepotism and political-business interests, there's no way to "get to" Vajpayee. During long years in the political wilderness, Vajpayee was one of the very few prominent Indian politicians who dared attack India's pro-Soviet leanings during the Cold War. And his parliamentary peers have never forgotten his solo filibuster more than 30 years ago, when he shamed India's legislators into passing a motion of condolence for Israeli children killed in a terrorist school bus attack.

Vajpayee wants to merge the old with the new. In talks during his visit, he will not dodge anxieties over South Asian tensions and nuclear competition. These are real enough. But India's leader hopes for forward-looking discussions about U.S.-India ties. In this respect, the last but most important part of the "new agenda" turns on an important strategic potential. While Clinton's April visit to India helped move U.S. policy beyond old habits of thinking about India, much remains to be done.

For 50 years we spoke and thought about "India and Pakistan" as if the two were joined at the hip. But the old Cold War rationale leveraging Pakistan into implicit parity with India has now disappeared. True, the bitter Kashmir dispute and dual nuclear weapons possession still buttress this mental habit. However, every measurement of economic prospects, GDP growth, national power projection and even basic welfare, such as women's literacy, favors India.

Still, we cannot and should not accept India's pretensions to automatic Great Power status. Old habits die hard in Delhi, where senior bureaucrats still obstruct neighboring countries' development plans. During Vajpayee's visit, Clinton and advisors to both presidential candidates should speak to India's leader about re-creating the enormous economic area once encompassed by an undivided British India that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Burma (now known as Myanmar). Enormous potential awaits the Indian subcontinent in energy, water management, transport and other cross-border linkages.

Above all, Vajpayee's visit should help us to rethink basic U.S. relationships in Asia. India's influence in Asia has been expanding in the last few years. We need to stay focused on new agenda opportunities just as much as on old anxieties.

Los Angeles Times Articles