George Bush's visit to India was such good news that it is hard to know where to begin. No, he was not greeted with garlands, dancing girls and hippies chanting peace and love. There were no pictures of him and Laura by the Taj Mahal, though Bush did say "we pledge to be invited back". This was India modern not exotic. The only chanting was from chief executives waving contracts and the only tigers were generals patrolling fast breeder reactors.
Bush came to New Delhi as the nearest he gets to a supplicant. India is the world's second largest muslim country after Indonesia, a democracy, a nuclear power and a fast emerging global trader. Indians have watched America's (and Britain's) cringeing appeasement of Chinese dictatorship and wondered how long the hypocrisy would last. The west's two "beacon democracies" in Asia, Iraq and Afghanistan, are beacons only of instability. Bush's two regional allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are exemplars of authoritarianism. In visiting Pakistan the president honoured a military regime that is an epicentre of regional terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Democratic, English-speaking, freedom-guarding India, the one country Washington should crave as an ally, had been ignored.
That neglect is now over. The reason is not just that India is looking as rich as China, but that Washington is badly in need of Asian friends. With American foreign policy in disarray the balance of world power is shifting by the year. America and Europe are facing oil starvation and population attrition. Energy-rich Latin America is moving leftwards. Russia is turning in on itself in an agony of reconstruction. The once-vaunted tiger economies of the Far East have relapsed as they start to consume their own growth. The giants of China and India are flexing their muscles as if awakening from a long sleep.
Bush's Indian visit was part hard, part soft. The deal on nuclear exchange is a flagrant breach of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). America is rewarding India for not signing it. India is left in unmonitored control of its eight fast breeder reactors yet with American supplies to maintain its 14 civilian stations. Nobody will control transfers from the one to the other. This indulgence goes beyond even America's milder appeasement of the nuclear programmes of Israel and Pakistan. It enables India to emerge as what its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, calls "a full member of the new nuclear world order". This renders the NPT defunct.
This is good news. It acknowledges reality and must force a revision of the treaty. The export of nuclear technology, in a world desperate to move away from carbon dependency, is a fact not just of life but possibly of global survival. The warming world must find some new dispensation for nuclear energy. This will come warts and all and the warts are bound to embrace weapons development. Since the west is armed to the teeth with such weapons, it cannot plausibly gang together to deny third world states the right to develop similar defences.
The diplomatic challenge is not to make emerging nuclear states feel ever more isolated and threatened. The hope is that somehow deals such as the one with India can be used to induce nuclear cooperation with others such as Iran. But such manipulation will always fall foul of realpolitik. Washington's favour shown to India, Pakistan, China and Russia combined with blood-curdling threats against Iran will only fuel the latter's sense of insecurity. The double standards are too massive for reality to bear. This is particularly so given reports that a similar deal to the Delhi one was requested by Tehran four years ago and rejected by Washington. If Delhi now induces a new pragmatism towards all emerging nuclear states it will be another gain.
Bush's soft diplomacy can be treated as a cynical exercise in trying to balance friendships in desperate places. But that is the essence of diplomacy. The past week has seen commentators revive the game of China versus India. This pits China's entrepreneurial zeal and financial prowess against India's educated elite and western-oriented economy. It pits China's manufacturing industry against India's service industry. It pits China's upwardly mobile but declining population against India's more
stratified but fast growing one. China stays in the lead until the end of the game, when India trumps its ace with democracy.
What the game fails to answer is whether democracy is really a winning hand or whether its victory is merely required by political correctness. India is supposedly the Asian tortoise and China the hare. But is this just a pious hope? I think not.
Any sensible analysis of China over the next quarter century must embrace another Tiananmen Square, possibly in every Chinese city. It must take account of a vast population demanding greater personal and political freedom. It must consider a communist regime faced with two choices: either grant freedom and accept the colossal redistribution of wealth this must entail, or deny freedom but buy off rebellion by making that same redistribution. In either case China's labour cost advantage over the rest of the world swiftly erodes. Chinese people demand higher wages and retain their surplus production for home consumption. China trumps its own ace.
Great leaps forward are being made in both China and India as they de-centralise and liberalise their socialised economies. Both are registering nominal growth rates of two to three times those in the west. In India this process has been slower because democracies throw up barriers to unwelcome change. India is still awash in trade unions, cartels, protectionism, corruption and local autonomies. All have acted as a brake on the economic radicalism of the past BJP government and the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Yet such resistance is also a safety valve, democracy's way of regulating change. India's social and economic structure offers a multitude of buffers between contending forces, between labour and capital and between groups and classes. A myriad institutions have kept Indian democracy alive against all odds for over half a century. Though they kept India poor - what the economist Jagdish Bhagwati calls "the non-revolution of falling expectations" - they were the carapace on the tortoise's back.
Now that India's economic reforms offer a revolution of rising expectations, Indian conservatism could be the stabiliser that stops competitive capitalism from racing out of control, that ensure it runs alongside redistribution and ensures some reduction in India's desperate poverty. Democracy is not just a good in itself but a means of guiding change. It may take longer to effect change than in China, but in time the tortoise does overtake the hare.
In visiting India and favouring it with a nuclear deal, Bush is not just paying his dues to the Indian option, he is recognising that real, rather than ersatz, democracy is worth western championship. He offers a hope that America may be starting to row back from neo-conservative hegemonism. Asia's democratic future does not lie in conquest and occupation, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the counter-productive bullying of Iran. It does not lie in the Pentagon propping up a few virtual corpses of democracy to encourage, of more likely terrify, the rest of the region.
India's democracy was a British import but it was nurtured through decades of empire and evolved through local custom and practice ever since. India has been no stranger to violence and its democracy has often seemed fragile. Yet it has shown that big countries with wide disparities of income can enjoy free speech and the rule of law. They can vote and can change their governments in peace. One India is worth a thousand Iraqs.
Before his trip Bush was inspired to tell the Indian press of his admiration for Gandhi, a man "so spiritual that he captured the imagination of the entire world." The admiration clearly does not extend to the Mahatma's espousal of non-violence, but the visit suggests at least the glimmer of a Gandhian humility towards Asia. Of all the assumptions that followed the Cold War, none was sillier or more short-sighted than that one super-power would be able to bestraddle, let alone stabilise, the world. That died on the heights of Tora Bora and in the ruins of Falujah. Bush in India is instead a quiet acknowledgement of Gandhi's ironic reflection, that western civilisation might indeed be a good idea.