Shadow Government

Why the World is Watching India's Elections

India's election, which begins this week and rolls through May 16, will be the largest peacetime exercise in human history. It will feature 815 million voters, including 100 million new ones. It will boast 300 million more voters than in the next three biggest democracies -- America, Indonesia, and Brazil -- combined. And there will be decisive contests in single states like Uttar Pradesh, alone home to as many people as Germany, France, and Britain put together.

As I argue over in the Nikkei Asian Review, the election may also prove a turning point in India's political history -- one in which a new "politics of aspiration," to use the journalist Shekhar Gupta's phrase, replaces the old "politics of grievance" that was about redistributing the economic pie rather than growing it. The emergent urban, youthful, middle class India -- the India of 900 million mobile connections -- will displace the old rural peasantry as the decisive demographic. Restoring economic vigor through good governance and decisive reform will be the clear mandate of the electoral victor. Polling shows Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set to win decisively.

For the region and the world, India's revitalization under a new leader would have consequences far beyond its borders. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is investing heavily in India as a geopolitical counterweight to China -- and an alternative market for Japanese companies increasingly rattled by China's authoritarian nationalism. Southeast Asian states meanwhile want a strong India as a player in regional security alongside the United States, China, and Japan. Beijing knows it cannot speak for Asia when a neighboring civilization-state of 1.3 billion people contests its leadership. And any true U.S. "pivot" to Asia must be anchored by robust partnerships with the predominant powers of the Indo-Pacific littoral -- India and Japan. In short, there is more at stake for Indian voters in the upcoming elections than their own domestic politics.

Beyond security, the world economy would unquestionably benefit from the return of India, and its billion-plus consumers, as an engine of global growth. GDP expansion has plummeted from nearly 10 percent in the late 2000s; the country has suffered eight straight quarters of growth under 5 percent as a result of the ruling Congress Party's cautious approach to reform.

Voters are no longer having it. As the Financial Times puts it:

Indians are no longer placated by Congress's brand of dynastic benevolence -- rural make-work schemes, handouts, and food subsidies. Because of uncontrollable corruption, much of that largesse does not reach them anyway. Instead, they want jobs, roads, teachers, justice, and a chance to make themselves a better life. Congress, kept in power by the fading allure of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for all but 13 years since independence, is no longer trusted to meet these aspirations.

While the BJP's approach to liberalization has flaws -- its campaign manifesto opposes opening the multi-brand retail sector to foreign investment -- Modi's record in Gujarat gives hope. The state he has governed for more than a decade produces a quarter of India's exports, has grown faster than the national economy for the last six years, and has an industrial base that more closely resembles China than the rest of India. A decisive victory for his party will help quell fears that alliance politics with regional leaders will put the new governing coalition in a policy straitjacket, precluding the dramatic reforms necessary to restore India's economic vigor.

India's return to dynamic growth through infrastructure investment and the rollback of antiquated restrictions on business will have international implications irrespective of the country's external orientation. But India's foreign policy will also be shaped by the ambitions of the man at the top. Here, hints about a potential Prime Minister Modi's worldview are intriguing.

It was the last BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who declared India and the United States "natural allies" after decades of alienation. His government conducted nuclear tests to balance China's military power and opened the door to U.S.-India defense cooperation. Vajpayee also sought détente with Pakistan, bullet-proofed by his hawkishness against charges of appeasement. This policy trifecta -- strategic partnership with America, strengthened deterrence against China, and an opening to Pakistan -- would be a neat hat trick for Modi to recreate, if he wins the election. He should also build on the new depth of strategic cooperation India's current government has developed with Japan, which could be a game changer for Asia. These policies would enjoy popular support: Most Indians view America and Japan favorably, see danger in China's growing power, and fear instability in Pakistan.

Modi heralds Vajpayee's foreign policy as the right blend of shanti and shakti -- peace and power. He promises to vigorously resist China's "mindset of expansion," including its claims to Arunachal Pradesh. His vision for U.S.-India relations remains opaque, tinged by a visa ban Washington imposed following the Gujarat violence. But he will certainly seek greater American trade and investment to catalyze Indian growth. This may be enough. The best way to restore momentum to U.S.-India relations is to get India growing again, making it a more attractive partner to the world's superpower.

SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Is Russian Aggression in Crimea an Anachronism? Or a Harbinger?

For some, Russia's invasion of the Crimea heralds a new Cold War.  For others, including President Barack Obama, it is an aberration -- a 19th-century outburst at odds with 21st-century standards of behavior. Both are likely incorrect. Rather than a throwback to a bygone era, aggressive actions like Russian President Vladimir Putin's may prove to be this century's norm; so, too, may confused and ineffective Western responses unless we reassess how we conduct our foreign policy.

Fears of a new Cold War are misplaced. Putin's Russia is not as powerful as its Soviet precursor, nor is it the vanguard of a global threat like communism. But the West is also not as purposeful as it was then. Our power and wealth have grown, but are more diffuse than in the past. They are also more difficult to harness. The rising relative strength of our allies, the absence of any overarching perceived threat, and our own reluctance have weakened multilateral coordination.

The same factors have undermined the notion, touted by President Obama, of an international community that shares a set of "principles and norms." In reality, the world is increasingly fragmented geopolitically even as it is more closely bound together by commerce and media. In a world that is no longer bipolar, nations need not "pick sides" in a grand sense but rather band together to suit their interests -- including, sometimes, their common interest in constraining American power.

Norms and principles, meanwhile, are increasingly contested. They're being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, who claim that international rules are tilted against them, and as the NSA debacle demonstrates, they are contested even among close allies like the U.S. and EU, which broadly share a common set of values.

These realities make for a dangerous and unsettled world. Putin's land grab in the Crimea may be brazen, but it is not unprecedented, nor is it likely to be the last such action. China's unilateral declaration of an "Air Defense Identification Zone" in the East China Sea may presage a similar action in the South China Sea, or even bolder steps as it tangles with smaller neighbors over ownership of various shoals and islands.

At the same time, alliances are more fragile. If the Soviet threat provided the impetus for the Western alliance system, the United States provided its glue through assistance, presence, and leadership. Our security architecture in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia survived the end of the Cold War, to be employed against new threats such as terrorism and proliferation. But it will not survive the withdrawal of American leadership.

Indeed, American leadership remains vital to stability and prosperity globally. As no other great power is ready or willing to assume our role, a leadership vacuum will be filled with conflict as other powers jockey for local preeminence. But the realities of expanding commitments, declining resources, and reluctant allies mean that we must lead more efficiently and intelligently.

The keys to doing so lie in exploiting factors that amplify American power. The first of them is, yes, norms and principles. Our interest in others adopting such rules is obvious. But it is not enough to exhort them to do so. We must be prepared to act not only to enforce them when they are trespassed, but to demonstrate that their benefits are shared equally and not exclusive to great powers.

President Obama unwittingly encapsulated the challenge of upholding norms even as he extolled them in addressing the Crimea crisis from the margins of a nuclear security summit. Ukraine, upholding proliferation norms, ceded its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity, only to see great powers ignore those guarantees in favor of more immediate national interests. Principles are meaningful only when acted upon.

Second, we must nurture our alliances, which are our most important national security asset. When we share interests, allies can act in our stead or in concert with us, reducing our risks and burdens. We must balance the pursuit of our own agendas -- including the advancement of norms -- against the interests of our allies.

Respecting the latter will provide us with the capital and credibility needed to secure cooperation with the former. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the Middle East, where our agenda in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere has diverged from our allies' to the extent that whatever short-term successes we enjoy may be more than offset by the strategic losses we incur as alliances erode.

Robust international norms and strong alliances can obviate the need for action. But when action is needed, it should be taken early, when problems are smaller and often easier to resolve via diplomacy rather than force. As problems like Syria, Ukraine, and Iran go unaddressed, they metastasize and become unmanageable. Avoiding such outcomes requires not only decisiveness, but strategic planning to foresee problems and put in place policies to forestall them.

We do not yet know whether the Crimea crisis will serve as a template or as a wake-up call for American foreign policy in the 21st century. If it is to be the latter, we must devise new strategies for exercising American leadership amid today's realities, and make the investments in our military and diplomatic capabilities to ensure their success.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images