Sunday, May 16, 2004
There is one obvious conclusion to draw from the results of last week's balloting in the world's largest democracy: Uncle Sam's coattails do not stretch to foreign political leaders this year. Incumbents abroad with an American connection gain no advantage by brandishing it before voters. They may even pay a price for getting too close to the Bush White House.
Britain's Tony Blair already pays that price within his Labor Party, even as he presides over a robust economy. In Spain, Jose Maria Aznar's conservatives fell in March despite a strong economic record. Now Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist party and its regional allies, which steered India to impressive growth rates, must hand over power to the once-discredited leftist groups led by Sonia Gandhi...
And a diplomatic blunder by the Bush administration may have also contributed to Vajpayee's surprise ouster. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the Asian subcontinent in March, while little noticed in the United States, left many Indians feeling that Vajpayee had been deliberately stiffed and humiliated by the Bush administration.
Powell was feted in New Delhi and then traveled to Islamabad, where he stunned the Indians by announcing without warning that the United States would soon take the symbolically important step of designating Pakistan as a "major non-NATO ally." That sparked a diplomatic protest and a furor in the Indian press.
Administration insiders say Powell was not deceitful. Instead he was mousetrapped by the clever Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, into prematurely announcing a policy step that had not received a final green light in Washington and to which Powell had attached little importance. India's initial reaction and now its election show how wrong the secretary of state got that.
It was not the Bush administration's closeness to Vajpayee that hurt him as much as its failure to deliver anything to compensate for the Indian leader's surprising support for U.S. bases in Central Asia, missile defense and other previously neuralgic subjects. This failure to reward friends is devastating. Tony Blair may have thoughts on this subject.
The Bush Administration deserved credit for building a closer relationship with India than any previous administration. Our new relationship with the world's second most populist country starkly contradicted the chattering class dogma that America is "unilateralist." However, the Bush administration has done a terrible job, in general, of developing America's "soft power," and Vajpayee's defeat, like Aznar's, may well be an example of that failure.
Having witnessed the 2004 elections first-hand, I dont think people even remembered the Powell visit. I think there were a lot of issues revolving around economic development (& people's expectations in that regard), corruption (the Tehelka scandal), the Gujarat riots (the possible BJP connection) that might have led to the BJP's fall. Most importantly, the BJP's slogan "India Shining" was evaluated by people for what it was - an empty boast.