Column: India’s election surprise

The result of India’s most recent democratic exercise has political pundits still wiping the egg off their faces. In one of the most dramatic political upsets in India’s post-Independence history, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ruling coalition was handed an embarrassing defeat by the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi – widow of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. What do these election results mean for U.S. relations with India?

There is a fear that the Indian election upset could adversely affect the burgeoning economic, political and security relations between the two democracies. Economic discontent was a major factor in the ouster of Vajpayee’s party from power. The government’s economic liberalization program benefited a relatively few urban upper and middle class people without positively affecting the lives of the many rural poor.

However, a mandate against the Vajpayee government must not be seen as a rejection of economic reform; rather it is a cry for participation in India’s expanding economy by the poorer sections of society. Fears of a reversal of economic reforms by the incoming Congress government are irrational. India’s economic reforms are structurally encoded and cannot be easily reversed.

Furthermore, it was Dr. Manmohan Singh himself, who as then-Finance Minister of the Congress government, initiated the economic reforms in the early 1990s in response to an economic crisis. That Dr. Singh has been chosen as India’s newest Prime Minister should send home the message that the reforms cannot be undone.

While India’s market reforms are unlikely to be reversed, one can expect a deceleration in this process which in turn could affect Indo-U.S. relations. Economic cooperation is one of the underpinnings of the emerging relationship, and a slowdown in India’s economic reforms could dampen bilateral ties. The United States should demonstrate patience and understanding as India plods its way through reform. Just as in the United States, in India too, democracy works by building political coalitions, and India’s many millions who are mired in poverty must be carried along with the rest of the country that has benefited from the process.

Economic reforms are not the end in itself, and divorced from equity and social justice they are likely to destabilize Indian society. In the long run, a politically stable, economically prosperous, democratic India would be a valuable ally of the United States in an arc of instability that stretches from the Middle East to the Gulf of Malacca.

In the area of security and political cooperation with the United States, the new government is likely to carry on with the policies of its predecessor. Driven by realism, India’s foreign policy enjoys a high degree of consensus and continuity, and the Indian elites realize that good relations with the United States are indispensable to the growth of India’s economy. Consequently, Indo-U.S. relations should continue to see an upswing as India inches toward greater political and security cooperation with the United States.

The United States’ hopes for a lasting peace between India and Pakistan could suffer setbacks. Even though the Congress Party has reiterated its commitment to continue with Vajpayee’s peace efforts with Pakistan, it does not have the domestic political constituency to push through the serious compromises that will be required to make lasting peace. In the past, the Congress party with its secular politics was often criticized for pandering to the minority Muslim community of India. Consequently, any compromise made by a Congress prime minster will raise the hackles of India’s Hindu Nationalist opposition raising fears of a national sell-out. The U.S. policy toward South Asia will have to be recalibrated to take these new realities into account. Despite the bumps on the roads, Indo-U.S. relations built on the common values of democracy and freedom are likely to move from strength to strength.

-The writer is a graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs.

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