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The election’s real winner

American optimism and the new Lok Sabha

Written by Jeremy Carl |
May 23, 2009 2:41:47 am

The Lok Sabha results are in and the winner is… the United States. While the votes invariably revolved around domestic issues,the composition of the new Lok Sabha will also have a substantial effect on India’s burgeoning relationship with America. And viewed from here,India’s elections were an absolute triumph.

From an American perspective,there were three critical trends that emerged from voting,and all of them were positive. First,the rise of a new generation of leadership in the Congress; second,the relatively weak performance of Narendra Modi; and third,the decimation of the Left parties.

Perhaps most important was the rise of a new batch of younger Congress leaders led by Rahul Gandhi. The US-educated Gandhi represents a sea-change from generations of Congress leaders who were often trained in the United Kingdom or in India’s heavily British-influenced elite institutions,and could often be reflexively anti-American. (Any American who has ever attended an “old money” event in Delhi will know exactly what I mean.)

In contrast,Gandhi and many of his young colleagues who came of political age in the post-Cold War era do not look to the US through the lens of Nehruvian Non-Alignment,which was disposed to hold America at arm’s-length. In the wake of the Congress-driven Indo-US nuclear deal,which represented perhaps the most fundamental and high-profile strategic partnership ever taken by the US and India (it would have been hard to imagine any previous Indian government risking its existence over a treaty with the US),the rise of Rahul Gandhi will be seen in Washington as yet another positive development in a relationship that has recently got ever closer.

Simultaneously,US policy-makers are relieved that the BJP strategy to thrust Narendra Modi forward more prominently as a national face for the party seems to have failed as a vote-getter. While it may be the case that reports of a BJP-Modi debacle are certainly oversold (the party did gain a seat in Gujarat and its fall in vote-share from a strong 2004 performance was modest),there is still little doubt that Modi’s debut on the national electoral stage fell flat.

Ever since the US refused Modi an entry visa (in an ill-advised move that backfired when even some of Modi’s harshest political detractors in India leapt to his defence as a matter of national honour),US policymakers have lived in fear of the implications of a potential Modi premiership for US-India relations. While a great deal can happen in a short time in Indian politics,these elections have dented his aura of invincibi-lity and made it more likely the BJP will try to look elsewhere for its leader to contest the next general election. Furthermore,given the Congress’s now substantial lead in Lok Sabha representation over the BJP,it is far from certain that,even if Modi were to win a BJP leadership struggle,he has the look of a future prime minister. As a matter of policy,the US has no objection to dealing with a centre-right BJP,but it will hardly want to deal with an Indian leader who could further fan sectarian flames in a region where it already has its hands full dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Finally,the grand failure of the communists delighted US policymakers on two different fronts. First,as has been widely noted,the demise of the Left Front opens up an opportunity for further liberalisation of the Indian economy,a prospect welcomed by American exporters facing a declining home market. Second,and perhaps more important,the marginalisation of the communists removes the most anti-American constituency from Indian policymaking. While all parties in India have sometimes challenged US interests for principle or political opportunism,for the communists the stance struck closer to the core of their ideology,as was obvious following the US-India nuclear deal. With the Left Front effectively sidelined,and the internationally popular Obama as president,the Congress can feel more comfortable about building a firm alliance with the US without worrying about being stabbed in the back by the communists as a consequence.

The Congress is justifiably celebrating the results of this election. But Washington may be just as big a long-term winner in a vote that saw the unprecedented marginalisation of anti-American forces and the emergence of a new generation of potential future leaders of a US-India alliance.

The writer researches Indian politics and policy at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies at Stanford University

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