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November 4, 2010 10:18 pm

Memo to Obama: Back India to join the UN’s club

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Ashutosh Varshney on the message Obama can take to the subcontinent

When George W. Bush went to India on his historic trip in 2006, he repeatedly stressed America’s and India’s shared democratic credentials. This should be at the forefront of Barack Obama’s mind as he starts his visit to India on Saturday. How will he frame the two powers’ relationship? Will he present the India-US friendship as an expression of core political values – freedom to vote, speak, move and worship, and tolerance of religious and ethnic diversity – that they share? Will he present that bond as a cornerstone of a new order, especially given the absence of political freedoms in a rising China? Will he even take the momentous step of endorsing India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? He should.

During the cold war, US and India had a dialogue of the deaf. The three pillars of the relationship – security concerns, economic beliefs and political values – were misaligned. Democracy could not trump the differences in economic philosophies and security interests. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the contradictions began to disappear. India also shifted economic gear, lifting controls over business. India’s entrepreneurs have by now ushered in an economic revolution. Without Indian software, indeed, thousands of US companies would not be as internationally competitive.

Into these currents have entered two new factors, pushing the two nations closer: India’s American diaspora, and the rise of China.

As business executives, professors, doctors, engineers and writers, Indian Americans are hugely successful. In the 1960s and 1970s, their chances of upward mobility were limited at home. America gave them huge rewards for their efforts and talents. They have developed profound admiration for the American way even as their fondness for India endures. They are now a new force in US politics, bringing America and India closer.

The rise of China has further altered the context. Admiration for China’s achievements is increasingly blended in the US and India with concern over its economic and strategic assertions. China has had spats with Japan and India; other neighbours are also worried about China’s territorial and maritime claims. The world does not wish to isolate China. But underlying concerns will remain until China embraces democratic values.

This is where Mr Obama’s opportunity lies. The contrasts between India and China are stark. China’s economic boom is led by state-owned enterprises; India’s by private entrepreneurs. India’s exchange rate is market-driven; China insists on keeping its currency undervalued. China keeps its Nobel Laureate in jail; a Booker prize-winning Indian writer, who recently gave a contentious call for Kashmir’s independence, is neither imprisoned, nor will be. China does not allow its rural citizens to come freely to cities; Mumbai’s slums are paradoxically part of India’s freedoms, as the poor move in search of jobs and make homes wherever they can find a few square feet.

The broader point is more fundamental. Universal franchise came to the west only after the industrial revolution. Among the so-called first Asian tigers, South Korea and Taiwan also turned democratic only after three decades of economic boom. India’s economic surge is recent. Even when growth was sluggish, India did not abandon democracy. At low levels of income, no other country has maintained a universal-franchise democracy so long. India has never claimed freedoms should be suspended until citizens have become rich.

If Mr Obama casts the evolving India-US friendship in terms of shared democratic values, he will send a message that poor nations do not have to choose between democracy and economic growth. The Chinese model is premised upon the priority of economic growth over political freedoms. If Mr Obama publicly supports India’s bid for permanent membership of the Security Council, he will also begin the process of founding a new world order, where power will also be a function of political values, not simply of military and economic might.

Mr Obama should openly back India for permanent membership. That would be an ambitious way to match Mr Bush’s Indian breakthrough. It would also give recognition to India’s democratic perseverance and recruit India as a partner in global problem-solving. Why leave it for the second term, or for the next president?

The writer is professor of political science at Brown University

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