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Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006

Beneficial potential of Singh's leadership


LOS ANGELES -- What will be the No. 1 geopolitical story in 2006? Don't be surprised if, by this time next year, India is the hot topic and Manmohan Singh, its prime minister, one of the world's most-watched leaders.

The reason is, in part, the sheer numbers. India, with relatively young demographics, now has 1 billion people. By 2030, it is believed, India's population will outstrip China's. By 2050, the world's economy, it is predicted, will be led by the Asia-Pacific/Western quartet of China, India, Japan and the United States.

India should prove a deeply interesting story every step of the developmental way. It both flourishes from (and festers under) a democratic system of government that is long on federal, state and local checks and balances but short on efficiency.

In China -- where once a decision is made, all discussion is over or else heads will roll -- a bridge can be constructed faster than India can even make the decision on whether to build one. India, with its tradition-bound, change-adverse bureaucracy, is not built for speed.

But, paradoxically, its basic system may be well suited for the long haul. In the last decade or so, governments have come and gone as political coalitions have risen and fallen; but the overall Indian vision of modernization and globalization has remained solidly intact, bureaucracy or not.

As Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, put the matter in a speech in November in New Delhi, India's capital city: "India must make up for much lost time. There is in fact already a strong political consensus between India's two major political parties that India needs to liberalize its economy and engage with the dynamic economies of the world. The time has come for India's next tryst with destiny."

India's current prime minister is a fascinating fellow. He is no Junichiro Koizumi -- all flair and hair and bold gestures lurking. He is not like the visionary and legendary former leaders of India, Gandhi and Nehru.

Instead, Singh, though a most quiet revolutionary, portends potential historic importance: It was the economic reforms that Singh implemented as finance minister in the early 1990s that helped uncork India's pent-up entrepreneurial energies and is now firing up its growing economy.

Singh is a modest man, quiet-spoken, deeply thoughtful, very well respected internationally, widely regarded as being above flattery much less corruption. Cambridge-educated, he is India's first non-Hindu prime minister, an ethnic Sikh, but a self-defined technocrat more than anything.

Internationally, the Singh coalition government has tried hard to become aggressively engaged. It has moved from Nehru's neutrality to a kind of globalized practicality. It has developed good relations with the Bush administration without buying into Washington's "India-as-China's balance" nonsense.

And Singh personally has worked hard to defuse tensions with Pakistan. The sight earlier this year of the Indian prime minister and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, watching a cricket game together was both unprecedented and unforgettable.

An Indian success song under the baton of Singh would impact favorably in many ways. It would demonstrate that even slow-moving, consensus-needy democratic systems can rival an authoritarian one like China's when it comes to economic change. It could contribute to stability in South Asia, where Pakistan as well as India possesses nuclear weapons. And Indian diplomacy could begin to play a more significant problem-solving role in the region.

A prime example is the ugly standoff in Burma, officially named Myanmar since 1989 by the military government that rules this beautiful but backwater country. Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected democratic leader, remains under house arrest as the stifling junta denies her people the freedom to prosper. Regional associations like the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations have had little influence; important governments like Thailand's persist with the announced policy of engagement that has changed very little indeed inside Myanmar.

More vigorous diplomacy by the world's largest democracy is called for. Myanmar's regime is weak; it has few friends and is widely detested. The Singh government should make Myanmar's transition to democracy a top priority of its foreign policy. The effect would be to create new winds of positive change in the region and demonstrate that the rise of a peaceful India in Asia is not without significant benefits and powerful consequences. The road to a democratic Myanmar may in fact go through New Delhi.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Relations. Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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