Invisible India
Growth is half of what it was five years ago. The country may lose its importance on the world stage at this rate.

Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi November 8, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • The candidates dwelt at length on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China while India didn't come up even once. #lynndebate

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  • Among America's friends only Israel made the debate's "top 10" list in terms of mentions. @Dhume01 #lynndebate

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  • You can’t argue that U.S.-India relations are in decline. A bipartisan consensus in Congress supports deepening ties.

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  • India is no longer the world's second fastest growing economy that title belongs to Indonesia. China remains on top.

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  • Unlike Japan or South Korea bound by treaty to the US, India's importance to the West hinges on its economy.

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  • “India will find that without rapid growth, America and the world will care less for its opinions.” @Dhume01

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If you were expecting Monday night's foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to highlight the importance of America's relations with the world's largest democracy, you were in for a rude surprise. While the candidates dwelt at length on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, and even found time to mention Mali and Somalia, India didn't come up even once.

Some of India's Twitterati were abuzz about the lack of attention. Did this mean India's place in the sole superpower's worldview is less central than New Delhi pundits sometimes assume?

At first blush, this isn't even a question worth asking. Who in their right mind would wish to belong on a list that involves rogue nuclear weapons, jihadist terrorism, state collapse and currency manipulation?

Neither presidential candidate mentioned Germany, but that doesn't make it insignificant. It underscores the solidity of transatlantic ties. Indeed, among America's friends only Israel made the debate's "top 10" list in terms of mentions. Arguably it's a special case—an embattled ally in the toughest part of the world, and a vital part of the global effort to halt Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons.

Nor can you convincingly argue that U.S.-India relations are in decline. A broad bipartisan consensus among Republicans and Democrats in Congress supports deepening the relationship. Each of the last three American presidents has visited India, and scarcely a month passes without a high-level visit from one side or the other. Bilateral trade worth almost $100 billion a year, plus a growing Indian-American lobby group, ensure that ties will likely remain steady.

But caveats aside, India's invisibility during the course of the U.S. presidential campaign does raise a worry. The biggest story out of India in the past year is its slowing growth, so could it be that economic non-performance will indeed push India toward the margins of Washington's Asia policy?

India's rising diplomatic heft over the past decade was largely powered by the notion that as an "emerging giant," it could balance China and help sustain global growth. Now, other countries have either caught up with India, or eclipsed it. No longer is India the world's second-fastest-growing major economy—that title now belongs to Indonesia; China remains on top.

If this slowdown is sustained, it will make it harder to credibly mention India in the same breath as China, or to hold up Indian democracy as a model worth emulating in the rest of the developing world. Unlike America's allies such as Japan or South Korea, bound by treaty and shared habits of cooperation, India's relative importance to the West hinges disproportionately on its economy.

India is, by nature, a difficult country for Americans to make sense of. The sheer complexity of local politics, coupled with a strange strategic culture—Indians bristle when they think America is blowing either too hot or too cold—can discourage non-specialists from taking an interest in the country lest they strike a wrong note. For example, it's okay to call India a "partner," but the word "ally" is a no-no lest it signal a loss of Delhi's vaunted "strategic autonomy."

Then there's the question of history. Unlike Thailand or Indonesia, India backed the wrong side during the Cold War. To be sure, in a world shaped by the rise of China and the threat from radical Islam rather than by fading memories of the Berlin Wall, this legacy has hardly prevented India from deepening its ties with the West in general and the U.S. in particular. But it does mean that India can't tap into the same deep reservoirs of historical goodwill in Washington, and other Western capitals, as some of its economic competitors.

Add to this the burden of Indian exceptionalism. From civilian nuclear cooperation, to defense co-production, to the implementation of patent laws, India routinely expects to rewrite rules for itself rather than go along with a broad international consensus. As Indians like to say, India is simply too big to follow anybody else's example—and too democratic to follow China's.

As long as its economy was the envy of much of Asia, India had little trouble justifying this demand for bespoke solutions, but how long will this remain true? Thanks in part to mismanagement by the populist Congress Party-led government, growth has plummeted. The International Monetary Fund expects India's economy to expand at only 4.9% this year, half of what it achieved at its peak five years ago.

The irony is that for the past decade, India's left-leaning intelligentsia has worried about America wielding too much influence in India. The real danger is the opposite. Though it won't be ignored completely, India will find that without rapid growth, America and the world will care less for its opinions.

For most of its independent history, India has found it difficult to make itself relevant to Washington even though policies made there—on everything from China to world trade to radical Islam—have a massive impact on Indian lives. Unless Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can find a way to turn around the economy, India risks a return to this familiar pattern.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01 

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