Tilting Toward New Delhi In the War on Terrorism

“Sir, what will happen between India and Pakistan?” The face in the rearview mirror bore the stamp of the subcontinent, as did the voice that had asked the question. But it was impossible for me to tell whether the speaker had come from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh-an important distinction, in this context. I played for time until he said, “How can we control the Islamic bomb?” “Islamic bomb” is the name that Pakistan gives its atomic weapons, so clearly he was from India. Now that I was sure of the answer, I asked the question, and he said he was from Punjab. “If you drive seven hours from my village, you get to the border-so Pakistan’s missiles could hit my village.” He laughed as he said the last bit, knowing full well that his village was not the main target of the Islamic bomb. The India-Pakistan face-off is no laughing matter, however, when you reflect on the megacities, whose populations are of the same order of magnitude as New York, which the two enraged countries might take out in a nuclear exchange. The “Portraits of Grief” that would begin on that particular day after would march on for decades.

Sometimes nations are locked into a pattern of hostility, then the pattern changes. From the reign of Louis XVI until the battle of Waterloo, England and France spilled blood from the woods of New York to the fields of Belgium to the atolls of the Indian Ocean. Then, peace for almost two centuries and counting. The American Revolution began a long era of Anglo-American dislike, sometimes rising to hostility, twice rising to wars. Then in the 1890’s, rivalry gave way to the special relationship, which is so special that Tony Blair can be best friends with either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

We are seeing a similar change in our relations with India. The United States and India have never fought, but for most of the Cold War we wished to wring India’s neck. India was a cool place for Democratic administrations to send celebrity ambassadors-John Kenneth Galbraith. But that was liberal self-hatred, for the India of Nehru and its heirs was ostentatiously contemptuous of the United States and cozy with the Soviet Union. Then Richard Nixon tilted towards Pakistan, which Henry Kissinger used as a go-between in his opening to China. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought America and Pakistan closer yet.

All that was another era. Now we are relying once again on Pakistan to help influence the course of events in Afghanistan (fighting a few of the very people the Pakistanis funneled our aid to in the first go-round). Pakistan is, and will remain, important to us. But it also has the quality of a side show.

Americans have been curious about India for a long time. Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman all dabbled in Indian philosophy; T.S. Eliot ended “The Waste Land” with a Sanskrit blessing. Allen Ginsberg and the hippies were rather late in the cultural game. What draws us together now?

The English language is a common bond. Rudimentary English is a worldwide pidgin for fleecing tourists and snagging visas. But English has been spoken in India for 300 years. It’s an elite tongue, like the French of the Russian court in War and Peace , but it has deeper roots, and it produces cultural artifacts, from novelists to newspapers. It is fostered by Computer World. A bright young Indian is apt to go from Bangalore to California and back in pursuit of his software fortune.

An English friend told me that when he speaks to Indians, he feels that he is communicating at a deep level, without a filter-an experience he never truly has with other non-Westerners. Could Indian religion be the reason? In a season that has been rife with childish speculations about Islam, I don’t want to add misinformation about yet another world religion. Certainly Hinduism is as remote from Christianity as it is possible for a religion to be. Yet is the gap so great from the Hindu side? Hinduism has managed to absorb almost everything that time and chance has thrown into its path in India. Perhaps Indians are more adaptive as a result.

We are on firmer ground with politics. India has had almost half a century of parliamentary government since independence. Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial emergency was an exception, but the fact that she put her new status to a vote, and that she accepted her surprising loss, is a tribute to the habits she temporarily supplanted. Indian politics is prey to corruption, stasis and all the ills of the flesh. But it is modern politics involving the decisions of a whole people, not the backroom deals of gangsters and oligarchs.

The proximate cause of an Indian-American alliance, however, is our enemy. The plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 may have been meant for the White House; the terrorists succeeded in hitting commerce and the military, not government. But Islamist terrorists did succeed in shooting up at least the entry to the Indian Parliament. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Pakistan’s President Musharraf is trying desperately to control forces that he once encouraged. India has always been the enemy, and the target of feral jihadists, as much as the Jews, the infidels and the unveiled harlots of New York.

Next to India is our other new best friend, Russia, led by the old K.G.B. man Vladimir Putin. How did we get in the same bed? Once again there’s a common enemy, as Russia copes, often ineptly, with Chechen rebels. Russia also wants to make money in the post-OPEC oil market. The sheiks have the easy oil, but the march of technology and of need will lessen that advantage, and Russia wants to profit. There is also by now a political kinship. Russia’s experience of parliamentary government is much shorter than India’s, and has seemed like one unbroken emergency. But even so, the Duma is more like Congress-or at least Newark-than Syria.

Where do these diplomatic revolutions leave old Cold War allies of convenience like Egypt and Saudi Arabia? It should leave them nervous.