- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2001

The Clinton administration's initiative to shift toward India in South Asia, even to a strategic alliance — which Bush George II has picked up with alacrity — is fraught with danger. It is a bumper-sticker solution to a vast, complex and deteriorating situation the product of amateurish geopolitics which anticipates a false balance of power with India as a counter to a growing, and perhaps, aggressive China.
Frustration with Pakistan's flirtation with Beijing and its continued sponsorship of the reactionary Afghanistan Taliban regime — affording refuge for Osmana Bin Ladin and his anti-American terrorism — is the immediate impetus. But there is also the hope that a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Delhi's ally for 35 years, relations with India inevitably will blossom politically as well as commercially. Unfortunately, this appraisal ignores grim realities.
True, Pakistan's army has again turned its back on representative government in favor of a military dictatorship. But it would be unrealistic to see the regime it supplanted as anything but a caricature of the Westminster system. Washington's continuing public censure not only has not encouraged return to civilian rule, but it has weakened Pakistan officers under siege from growing but of unknown size Islamacists in their own ranks. Even military rule has not been able to halt ethnic and religious (intra-Islam) violence. The country is bankrupt.
In the British Indian twin state, no amount of chanting the mantra "the world's largest democracy" can camouflage growing representative government failure. Law and order are threatened by insurgencies. At the center, a fragile coalition headed by a Hindu revivalist party might be replaced at any moment by an equally fragile and opportunistic amalgam of so-called left parties with their tradition of failed Nehruism. Stop-and-go economic reform is mired in fumbling, corruption and an a self-serving bureaucracy that purports to be believe the East India Co. is alive and well. Relations between the majority Hindu community and India's 200 million Muslims as well as its Christians are worse than any time since 1948. Moving rapidly past a billion people and the world's second-largest population, the vast majority of Indians live in poverty and squalor still far from those simple benefits of drinking water and basic amenities that Mohandas Gandhi and independence promised.
Regional governments flaunting the rule of law the most recent the accession in Tamilnadu (65 million people) of a convicted felon as chief minister while she used Soviet tactics to haul her predecessor to jail in the middle of the night. Fragile coalitions rule many states, with frequent imposition of "president's rule" by the center becoming more and more a controversy.
The vibrant and unique Indian software industry notwithstanding ($6 billion in exports last year), India is a long way from economic renaissance so long anticipated. It is arguable that the vast sums — domestic savings and foreign aid — wasted on Soviet-style planned projects and the crippling of what was once the largest and most talented entrepreneurial reservoir in the Third World may never be overcome. Vast new sums are now scheduled to go for military hardware much of it contracted for with Russia.
Over all this hangs the threat of an accidental nuclear war with both countries continuing to build their missile and nuclear arsenals. Washington's cautions on this score have been ignored after never realistic Clinton administration threats of economic reprisal will have to be lifted.
This all does relate to U.S. national interest and our China problem. But not in the manner that the sponsors of a new strategy intend.
India is not in a position to pull America's chestnuts out of the China fire if they are, indeed, there, and were India's wily politicians to be so naive as to try. The Kargil episode of two years ago — when a Pakistan thrust in Kashmir was unanticipated and as badly handled as the devastating defeat by the Chinese in the Himalayan reaches a quarter-century ago — exhibits the incapacities of the Indian military. Contrawise, it is not hard to see how Beijing — if and when the gauntlet were thrown down — could exploit the ethnic and racial conflicts, some dating back to independence. Nepal, which India has always regarded as its Hindu protege but which has played Beijing against New Delhi, has a Maoist-style insurgency spilling over into northern India after a bizarre murder of its royal family. In southern Tamilnadu, because center coalitions depend on local regional parties, New Delhi cannot cut off the logistics of the 18-year-old Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka (which Indira Gandhi played a large role in initiating). But the threat is not only to a Colombo government now in more than usual political turmoil, but an international nationalist movement seeking to create a greater Tamil state with Madras' secession from India.
Earlier this month, a meeting of Indian and Pakistani leaders, designed to foster a peace initiative, ended inconclusively. Both Indians and Pakistanis outside their governments believe Washington pressure had a hand in bringing about the meeting. The 50-year-old central issue of Kashmir is so fundamental to the origins of both countries and their continued ethos that it is hard to see how such meetings could achieve a settlement. Meanwhile, what is now a growing indigenous insurgency [no longer simply Pakistan's instigation and penning down half a million Indian security forces] is a flashpoint for another Indo-Pak conflagration.
An aggressive, clumsy American policy in the area now is all that might be needed to push the whole boiling cauldron into the fire.

Sol Sanders first encountered India as a volunteer ambulance driver in the British Army in 1945, and has studied and written about it ever since. He was the resident U.S.News & World Report editor in New Delhi, 1961-65.

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