- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, comes to Washington this week just as the peak U.S. political season gets into full swing. Over 2 million Indian-Americans, many of America's richest corporations and both presidential candidates are closely interested in the visit, which follows Mr. Clinton's own successful trip to India last April. At that time, Mr. Clinton formalized new commercial and scientific initiatives, confirmed a U.S. diplomatic tilt toward this second-largest country on the planet, and (less successfully) strove to alter thinking in New Delhi about the usefulness of nuclear weapons.

The Vajpayee visit straddles two agendas for future U.S.-India ties. The old familiar agenda remains in thrall to various anxieties. India's nuclear ambitions alarm the non-proliferation specialists in Washington. Chronic India-Pakistan tensions also cause concern. Mr. Clinton has described Kashmir, 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 already transforming America's connection with this rising Asian power. In recent months, business journalists have gushed over info-tech entrepreneurs in India and the United States. The sheer size of India's domestic market mesmerizes American companies. After fitful liberalization beginning a decade ago, India's expanding economy has posted growth averaging annually about 5 percent. Enormous infrastructure needs, especially electricity shortfalls, beckon technical solutions and finance from outsiders. Major U.S. corporations are expanding business in India these days, including General Electric, Exxon Mobil, Ford, Enron, IBM, AIG, Unocal, Citibank, Chase and CMS, to name but a few. To be sure, India's glacial pace of change can be maddening.

During the 1990s, China by contrast attracted 45 times more foreign investment than India. And Indians still joke that their country 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 our country's richest single immigrant group; they include the entrepreneurs who created hotmail.com and E-Lock Technologies, a firm pioneering secure electronic commercial transactions.

In my meetings with Mr. Vajpayee in recent years, I've always 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" Mr. Vajpayee. During long years in the political wilderness, Mr. 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 over 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.

Mr. Vajpayee wants to merge the old with the new. In talks this week, 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. While Mr. Clinton's April visit to India helped move American policy beyond old habits of thinking about India, much remains to be done.

True, the bitter Kashmir dispute and dual nuclear weapons possession still buttress the mental habit of balancing India against Pakistan. But every measurement of economic prospects, GDP growth, national power projection, and even basic welfare such as women's literacy, favors India. There's a reason why we are tilting to 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.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Vajpayee won a reputation throughout South Asia as a very cooperative foreign minister. During his visit as India's prime minister, Mr. Clinton and advisers to both presidential candidates should speak to India's leader about recreating the enormous economic area once encompassed by an undivided British India that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Burma.

Enormous potential awaits the Indian subcontinent, in energy, water management, transport and other cross-border linkages. Above all, Mr. Vajpayee's visit this week should help us to rethink basic U.S. relationships in Asia. India's Asia influence has been expanding in the last few years in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (Asia's only multilateral security forum), and in new relationships with China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore. Mr. Vajpayee's government remains committed to giving refuge to the Dalai Lama, to blunting Beijing's expanding influence in Central Asia and, with Japan, to forging new info-tech cooperation agreements. There's more than enough to talk about.

James Clad is professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and in the 1990s was South Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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