Last November, 131 million Americans voted, and the whole world took notice. Over the last month, about 700 million Indians voted, and most Americans, like most of the world, didn't much notice.
To be sure, American elections are more important to people all over the world than those in any other country. But the election in India is more important to Americans than most of us realize. Including, perhaps, our president.
This was not always so. During the Cold War, India was something of a de facto ally of the Soviet Union. This was due in part to our alliance with its rival neighbor Pakistan, but also to a feeling of solidarity with the U.S.S.R. on the part of the ruling Congress Party and its two historic leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
The Congress vision of India was built on three pillars: socialism, autarky and secularism. Socialism meant a government-driven economy policed by a Permit Raj -- government bureaucrats had to approve every economic change. Autarky meant cutting India off from world trade, so that local industries could grow. Secularism meant toleration of religious diversity in a nation with both a large Hindu majority and the world's second-largest Muslim population.
The fall of the Soviet Union removed two of these three pillars. Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now prime minister, began dismantling the Permit Raj. Successive governments led by the Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist BJP opened up India to trade, and export industries grew. Secularism remained, embraced by the Congress and not entirely repudiated by the BJP.
With the de facto alliance with the Soviets defunct, India was now open to an American alliance. Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit India in years. George W. Bush moved further, cultivating closer ties with India and signing and getting ratified a nuclear cooperation treaty.
It became obvious that we had much in common. Both countries have a large and capable military, both have nuclear weapons, both have electoral democracies and English common law traditions, and both are prime targets of Islamist extremists. After Sept. 11, when Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf made a U-turn and promised to help the United States in Afghanistan, he did so in the awareness that the United States had a friend on the other side of his border.
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