India is one of the world's most intense democracies. Some two thirds of the registered voters cast their ballots; dozens of political parties scattered across the ideological spectrum compete for the support of over 600 million voters; India's very free and very lively press devotes most of its attention to politics. Underneath the sound and fury of partisan politics in India is a firm foundation sustained by the strength of the institutions and traditions that permit people aggressively to advocate their views and push their interests.
This adherence to the rules was demonstrated in recent developments in India. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee followed the President's recommendation for a vote of confidence when his coalition government lost the support of a key ally; he subsequently resigned when he lost by one vote -- 270-269. When it became apparent that no party could put together a parliamentary majority, President Narayanan dissolved Parliament and ordered the independent Election Commission to set the dates for new parliamentary elections. He also asked Prime Minister Vajpayee to remain in a caretaker capacity until a new parliament is sworn in. The Election Commission has announced that elections will take place over several days in September and early October. A new government should be in place by mid-October.
The coming elections will be India's third, and the next government will be India's sixth, within a three year period. India has had seven governments since 1989. The only one to serve its full five-year term in that period was that of Prime Minister Rao from 1991-1996. These rapid changes in government are a sign of major shifts in the social basis of Indian politics, but they also indicate the fundamental soundness of the institutions of governance: the parliament, the presidency, the judiciary and, above all, the Constitution. Throughout this period, the military has remained scrupulously outside the political process; the military has been firmly under civilian control since India's independence in 1947.
The rise of coalition politics in India has coincided with the growing assertiveness of groups formerly at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Disadvantaged groups have learned that numbers count in a democracy, and they have forced the major political parties to pay attention to their interests. When established political parties fell short of expectations, these groups have started their own political parties. One of their most persistent demands has been an expansion of India's policy of giving preferential treatment to the country's most disadvantaged groups. Inscribed in India's Constitution is a quota system for society's most dispossessed -- the Dalits. There are pressures to expand the notion of quotas even further and that includes special provisions for the guaranteed representation of women at all levels of the political system. The New York Times had an excellent front page story on May 3 by Celia Dugger about a low caste woman who occupied the highest elective position in a small village in India's largest state. She and thousands of women like her across this vast country are paving the way for a further transformation of Indian society.
The U.S. Response
Mr. Chairman, with this devolution and diffusion of political power, it becomes imperative that we maintain close contacts with all the major political parties in India, to ensure that our message is fully understood and our interests effectively pursued. Ambassador Celeste and his predecessors have led our mission in India in pursuing this goal, and we are well served by the presence of three consulates in the other major regions of the country which focus on regional trends and issues. I and other Department officials have taken care to meet with leaders of Congress and other opposition parties on trips out to the field. Deputy Secretary Talbott has consulted with the head of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, and other national leaders, including former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, during his visits to Delhi in the course of his eleven-month old security dialogue with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. I am confident that, whatever government emerges from the current political process, we will be well prepared to engage immediately.
More to the point, we will work with any government that emerges on the many important items on our agenda with India. Obviously, non-proliferation is currently our central concern. Our dialogue over the past eleven months has been dominated by the global reaction to India's -- and then Pakistan's -- nuclear tests. While there is still much work to do in that area to enable us to restore the bilateral relationship we had in May 1998, before the nuclear tests and the imposition of Glenn sanctions, we still hope that we will be able to carry out President's Clinton's goal set in 1997 to deepen our engagement and establish the broad-based relationship I believe we both seek.
In this regard, Prime Minister Vajpayee in New York last fall called attention to his belief that the U.S. and India were "natural allies." We should strive to realize that goal rather than remain what one scholar accurately described as "estranged democracies." Whether we are able, in the coming years, to consolidate our natural affinity, or remain stuck in our old negative patterns, will be determined by the actions of both our governments. Because we remain convinced that the vision we articulated and the broad interests we identified are still valid and worth pursuing, we will not be found lacking in our efforts to seek a common approach with India on the great issues of the day.
Mr. Chairman, I should stress that since the time of India's nuclear tests, our two countries have made progress toward understanding each other's security considerations, but we have yet to see the concrete actions taken that could help to reconcile our differences. We regretted the decision last month by India to test an extended range version of its Agni ballistic missile. While we have a much better understanding, after eight rounds of dialogue, of what motivates Indian strategic thinking, our concern about further missile tests by India and Pakistan remains. We nevertheless will seek to use the solid foundation we have established in the dialogue to continue exchanges with whatever future government emerges. It is our hope that we will be able to build on the work in this area we have done thus far, and to continue to make progress toward "harmonizing" our security concerns, to borrow a phrase from Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. This new relationship will benefit all concerned.
It is also our expectation that there will be continuity in the search for more stable and better relations between India and Pakistan. The recent Lahore Summit, in which the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers displayed both foresight and courage in establishing a framework for bilateral cooperation and reconciliation, received the enthusiastic support of millions of Indian and Pakistani citizens. Popular reaction to Lahore gives us the hope that any new Indian government will see fit to carry this process forward. As President Clinton said in a statement shortly after the February meeting of the two Prime Ministers, "South Asia-and, indeed, the entire world-will benefit if India and Pakistan promptly turn these commitments into concrete progress. We will continue our own efforts to work with India and Pakistan to promote progress in the region."
I would add that it is equally important that India and China engage on their own security concerns. In that respect, we are encouraged that these two nations, which are playing an important role on the world stage, have re-started their annual Joint Working Group meetings to discuss border and other issues, which we hope will include broader security concerns. Foreign Minister Singh had earlier indicated the possibility of traveling to China; we hope he or his successor will do so. We were also encouraged by Chinese Foreign Minister Tang's statement that Beijing was committed to seeking good relations with India into the new century.
Mr. Chairman, in our own public diplomacy since the May tests, we have sought to reach a broad audience, both in this country as well as in India and Pakistan, to explain the basis of our diplomacy toward these two countries. Deputy Secretary Talbott has given a number of interviews and speeches in this connection, and he has written articles on the U.S.-Indian dialogue that have been widely disseminated at home and abroad. I have also sought opportunities with the news media to lay out our thinking about South Asia and security. We have done so, Mr. Chairman, because we firmly believe that the steps we are asking India and Pakistan to take in the security and non-proliferation areas are not merely steps that serve our own policy interests--we are also convinced they will enhance and increase the security and well-being of both countries, and of the South Asian region as a whole.
Mr. Chairman, it is our hope--indeed our vision-that we will be able to move in the direction that both the United States and India desire. We look forward to the day when differences over security policy no longer dominate the bilateral dialogue. We look forward to the kind of broad-based relationship that we enjoy with many other democracies--one in which we are deeply engaged on an agenda of economic growth and trade, science and technology cooperation, cultural and educational exchange, law enforcement, and in many other areas. Our vision, Mr. Chairman, is not simply to return to the situation in which we found ourselves on May 10, 1998. We desire to raise our bilateral engagement to a new level of intensity, breadth and depth. As President Clinton has said, we want a new U.S. - India relationship for the 21st century.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.