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Published: Wednesday, 5/20/2009

An anchor in troubled seas

THE victory in orderly, free, democratic elections of the moderate United Progressive Alliance in India, led by 76-year-old economist Manmohan Singh, should be reassuring to Indians, to the people of a troubled South Asia, and to a concerned and sometimes panicky United States.

In the past month, Americans - because of media which sometimes engage in a frenzy over bad news - have found themselves dwelling on troubles in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of India's near neighbors.

That is not to say that the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not serious. They are. But during the past month, India - with 700 million eligible voters and a population of 1.2 billion - has been working its way through a month of nationwide elections to choose a government for the next five years.

To gain perspective, it is useful to step back to view a country as part of a region. Pakistan, standing alone, or worse, yoked to Afghanistan as the Obama Administration seeks to do, is - to put it mildly - a mess. Its prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, a big-time crook, has little support in Pakistan and visibly lacks the ability to deal with the country's severe problems. The civilian alternative, Nawaz Sharif, is probably worse both in terms of honesty and leadership capacity, and bears an unsettling resemblance in profile to the Sidney Greenstreet character in Casablanca.

Lurking in the foreground of Pakistani politics is its ubiquitous military, always ready to take advantage of a shaky civilian political situation to carry out a coup d'etat. From the American point of view, the Pakistani military presents problems apart from its proclivity to periodically pull Pakistani civilian rule into a dark alley and stick a shiv in it.

The armed forces would prefer to be deployed in a posture ready to fight the Indians rather than the wild and woolly Islamic extremists of the country's northwest. They are the custodians of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, of wide interest to the world and, in the past, sometimes a source of quick cash. And some of them either sympathize with or do not see themselves as opponents of America's enemies, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan can keep people in Washington up at night. If they think of Afghanistan as well, it's even worse.

Afghanistan elections are in August. President Hamid Karzai, who in the years just after 9/11 seemed to be a model of post-Soviet, post-Taliban democratic rule, is no longer Washington's technicolor-costumed dream leader.

He is considered corrupt. He hasn't taken on Afghanistan's drug lords or warlords, who tend to be one and the same, and he has rebuffed Washington's hints to step aside. He will run again, with a notorious warlord as one of his vice presidential candidates.

A third South Asian country, Sri Lanka, has completed a long civil war that resulted in thousands of deaths and thousands more displaced. Though it appears the war is over, the government stifled the rebels by killing off most of them and their leader.

So, to soothe one's soul after contemplation of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, a look at what happened in India could help. The country has experienced a decade of high economic growth and broadening prosperity. Its economy has not taken the licking that other countries have absorbed as a result of the collapse of the American economy because it has been relatively cautious. India's banks and companies were smart enough not to buy Wall Street's curious instruments, thus avoiding the flu that America's financial swine were spreading.

It wasn't just because of the wisdom of Mr. Singh, but the incumbent prime minister's tranquility and deliberation in the face of the global economic crisis certainly helped his country. Indian voters chose his moderate alliance, declining the sometimes anti-Muslim nationalist extremism of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. They also rejected the Marxist Communist Party of India, which won less than 15 percent of the 543 seats in the parliament. The vote of confidence in the moderates was not shaken by the attacks in Mumbai six months ago that killed 166 people and which was, in effect, India's 9/11.

There remains plenty for Mr. Singh's government to do. About 25 percent of Indians live below the poverty line. If India is to continue to maintain high levels of growth, economic reforms to improve the lot of the rural poor will be required.

For the United States, the lesson may be to side to a greater degree with the strong in South Asia. Rather than wade into the quicksand of trying to "fix" Afghanistan and, even more difficult, Pakistan, it probably makes more sense to work with a sensible, prospering India as an American partner in trying to anchor a troubled South Asia.

It wouldn't hurt Afghanistan and Pakistan to see the United States asking the girl with bright eyes, straight teeth, and nice clothes out rather than constantly wrestling in the mud with their problems. Shouldn't America at least some of the time be seen as favoring those who fly right, such as India? We are, after all, supposed to actually like practicing democrats.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

E-mail dsimpson@post-gazette.com



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