- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

"Do you know who is your president yet?" The American tourist in India hears the question about as often as he meets Indians. The first dozen or so times, he may welcome the opportunity to answer it: How kind of his "hosts" to take such interest in the inability of officials in Florida and in the United States to run competent presidential elections. Answered in kind with a detailed discussion of the intricacies of the U.S. Electoral College, Indians tend to nod politely and patiently and to wait for the "real" answer.
The next several times the tourist has to answer the question though, he begins to wonder if perhaps some Indians aren't enjoying the fact that the United States still hasn't figured out whether Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush will be the next president more than a week after the election. Some, perhaps many acting in accordance with the poet's rule that we are not displeased at the misfortune of our friends clearly are happy to measure the United States by its own standards.
Writes the Times of India in an editorial Nov. 11: "Miscounts, recounts, false starts, allegations, law suits oh, how wonderful that some of backward India's favourite election time experiences should be rubbing off on the world's greatest democracy." It continued, "So often have we been given a pat on the back by Big Brother for being a good, little democracy that it actually feels great to be able to return the compliment." Thanks a lot.
Says a columnist in the Nov. 15 Hindustan Times, "The political logjam must be particularly embarrassing for a country that sees itself as role model and whose foreign policy is based on self-righteous proselytizing about democracy." Of course, the U.S. argument is not that democracy in the United States or anywhere else is infallible; far from it. It's just miles ahead of anything that anyone else including, ahem, India has ever come up with.
Still, one can perhaps forgive the Indians for the pleasure they are taking in this situation. For years, the United States has been lecturing them on everything from their own cases of voting fraud to their questionable human-rights record in Kashmir, to their decision to conduct tests on nuclear weapons in 1998. The United States suggested that India unlike, ahem, the United States forego development of nuclear weapons. India responded that it could handle its own security needs without nags from the United States butting in. Coming from a country that measures its life in the hundreds of years to a country whose origins date back thousands of years, all this advice is no doubt a little hard to take.
These policy differences notwithstanding, one can hardly overestimate the accomplishments of modern India. Its great feat has been to take approximately one-sixth of the world's population, along with its roughly 40 major languages and hundreds of dialects and to make of them a coherent, if occasionally bewildering, political entity and world power.
To appreciate the measure of the task, try using an Indian highway, a two-lane metaphor for life in this country: They are crowded, chaotic and dangerous. Both literally and figuratively, there are few if any guardrails here and a reluctance to use safety precautions like helmets and safety belts that most Americans take for granted. Most Indians also seem to prefer driving in the middle of the road, a fine place to be politically, but something less than a great strategy when a truck coming the other direction has the same idea. The rule of the road here is survival of the biggest. If the vehicle coming toward you is bigger than yours is, it's up to you to get out of the way.
Still, most Indians believe in reincarnation; they drive accordingly. Here, white lines dividing lanes fall into the category of helpful hints rather than strict regulations. About the only guidance available to Indian drivers is the car horn, which they tend to use as often as other people might breathe. Throw into this congestion a stray but sacred cow that wanders out into the median, goats, rickshaws, pedestrians and speed bumps and you have the making of carnage. Passing on blind curves and hills is a routine event, except perhaps to first-time, white-knuckled riders. The "Lonely Planet" guidebook series reports that there are 70,000 road deaths a year in India, well more than the 43,000 road fatalities in the United States. What's interesting is that the United States has roughly 20 times the number of vehicles.
There is historical precedent for such suicidal stubbornness in the Indian state of Rajasthan, west of Delhi in northern India. Guidebooks say the famed Rajput warriors who once made it their home had a dim view of surrender. Rather than give in to foes, they rode out to certain death at the hands of their enemies while their women and children immolated themselves on a huge funeral pyre. It happened not once but many times.
Such is the heritage of the people that India must manage into the next millennium. Whoever the next president of the United States may be, he should want to keep them on his side.
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com



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