As the world fires hashtags at Boko Haram (we should deploy drones) and Europe yields to Putin, America should look toward India with new hope. In this nation of over 1.2 billion people, new circumstances herald great opportunities for the United States. Last Friday, the conservative-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority government.
As the next prime minister, BJP leader Narendra Modi — a populist who a decade ago was known for agitating against Muslims — certainly faces a massive task. He must revitalize India’s stagnating economy and attack a bloated, corrupt bureaucracy. But there’s hope. For a start, Modi’s record as chief minister of India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, is impressive. During his tenure, Gujarat’s economy grew significantly, as did international investment. If, and admittedly this is a big if, Modi is able to destroy the bureaucratic minefield and apply his Gujarat strategy across India, the country’s middle class will grow and millions will eventually rise out of poverty.
America will also benefit. In recent years America’s trade deficit with India has exploded, because U.S. imports have expanded while exports have remained static. Were India’s middle class to expand, however, demand for luxury U.S. goods would grow in corresponding measure.
And Modi doesn’t simply offer new economic prospects. As America scales down its commitment to Afghanistan, we’ll need other ways to maintain our influence in south Asia. Modi presents new possibilities: He supports a break from India’s previously timid foreign policy, which could include a closer partnership between India and the U.S. For America, this evolution would carry two key benefits.
First, it would strengthen the U.S.’s role as an intermediary between Pakistan and India. One consequence of Modi’s victory is that the Pakistani government now needs American influence more. After all, on issues ranging from Kashmir to counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation, Modi is likely to pursue a tougher relationship with his western neighbor. Of course, there are risks. Pakistani cooperation with Islamic terrorist groups will continue. With India under Modi, escalation will be more likely in the event of another atrocity in the style of Bombay-2008. That being said, even Pakistani intelligence operatives are aware that a war with India would be their apocalypse. Just as Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials enabled his rapprochement with China, Modi’s arrival, with U.S. guidance, might foster a new relationship with Pakistan.
The second opportunity Modi offers the U.S. is for India to serve as a partner to balance China’s expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Due to arrogance and bluster, China has managed to alienate most of its close neighbors. In Communist Vietnam, violent anti-Chinese sentiments have led China to evacuate thousands of its citizens. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan are all increasingly frustrated with Chinese bullying. As I’ve argued before, America has the unique ability to bring these forces together to restrain China. With Modi in office, the United States — alongside Japan, with its increasingly important trade relationship with India — now has an opportunity to build an arc of Indo-Pacific democratic cooperation. This would force China to choose between isolation and fruitful engagement. In turn, this would increase international stability and benefit commerce.
None of the above is guaranteed. If Modi decides to play to the hardline element of his base and Obama refuses to be bold, this election may portend nothing more than an unmitigated disaster. However, if the new prime minister focuses on unleashing the talents of his democratic nation, the opportunities for India, the United States, and the world will be limitless.