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nicholas burns

The promise of India

A group of school girls watched as antirape protesters demonstrated in New Delhi in December.

Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

A group of school girls watched as antirape protesters demonstrated in New Delhi in December.

It has been a big idea in American foreign policy for over a decade: The United States would align its interests with a rapidly rising and democratic India to balance China’s burgeoning power in the vital Asia Pacific region. But that ambitious strategic bet depended on the critical assumption that the chaotic, poor, and struggling India of today would develop into the vibrant, wealthier, and more stable India of tomorrow that many of its admirers think it may yet become.

India is a country of immense contradictions — at once a rising economic power as well as home to the greatest number of poor in the world. A nation rich in scientific and engineering talent but held back by deplorable roads, infrastructure, and miles of bureaucratic red tape. At a meeting of the Aspen India Dialogue in New Delhi earlier this week in which I participated, Americans and Indians alike agreed our countries have never had a stronger partnership. And, yet, I don’t believe we will see its real promise until the India of tomorrow is more fully formed.

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India is lurching from crisis to crisis. Its high tech-driven economy has slowed considerably during the last two years. The Congress Party-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has suffered a series of self-inflicted corruption scandals that have soured public opinion and reduced its political authority at home. Until recently, the government’s economic reform program was stalled but it is now starting to move forward, particularly by permitting retail firms like Walmart to modernize the creaking food supply network.

This sprawling, multi-ethnic country also has deeply rooted social problems, as evidenced most glaringly by the appalling rape and death of a promising young Indian student in December. The Indians I met in Delhi and Ahmedabad could talk of little else. Many Indians worry that the rape, and a similar gang rape on Saturday in north India, illuminate serious and overlapping crises of policing, governance, and social dislocation which must be addressed on an urgent basis. For all its promise, India faces enormous challenges of modernization as its 1.2 billion people transform this increasingly urbanized country.

And yet India is changing in real and perceptible ways, and it would be a mistake to underestimate its enormous potential. It won’t progress on a straight path, and the United States will need to be patient. The US government’s National Intelligence Council says, “In 2030, India could be the rising economic powerhouse that China is seen to be today.” It goes even further to predict that India will likely overtake China in economic power in its tortoise and hare race by the end of this century due, in part, to its much more youthful population.

These more positive trends, as well as the pivotal geographic importance of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, also make India particularly relevant to core American interests for the future. India has been very supportive of the US campaign in Afghanistan and is an increasingly important air and maritime partner along with Japan and Australia. As the world’s largest democracy, it wields unmistakable soft power in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa. And we are doing more business with India as well, as we near $100 billion in trade in goods and services. India also provides a noticeable exception to partisan wars in Washington — Republicans and Democrats both see the logic of making India a priority for American strategy in Asia. Due to the hard work of both Obama and former president George W. Bush, we now have an impressively broad-based relationship with India in science, education, health care, counterterrorism, and homeland security.

The temptation in foreign policy is to focus on short-term crises but not allow for the time and patience to pursue longer-term challenges. As Obama prepares to take the oath of office for the second time, he and Secretary of State-designate John Kerry have plenty of immediate fires to put out, from Iran’s nuclear drive and Syria’s civil war to engaging China and ending the Afghan War. They should spare some time in the year ahead to tend the diplomatic garden in New Delhi. As global power shifts to the East, and we help to remake the strategic map of the world, the India of today and tomorrow will be at its center.

Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.
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