India's emergence as a great power and strategic ally of the United States is being tested by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington this week. The effectiveness of this quiet alliance - it has been kept virtually secret by the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush in deference to Pakistan - depends on whether Mr. Obama finally shows some backbone in supporting the Afghanistan mission, in which India has a vital stake.
India's coalition government, led by Mr. Singh's Congress Party, could not have been reassured last week when Mr. Obama appeared to concede equal status to China in dealing with the world's problems - the so-called G2. Afghanistan hardly came up. Nor will the Indian leader, a pragmatist more than a politician under his signature light blue turban, be unduly impressed by a show of style and a White House state dinner over substance and policy-making.
It was Bill Clinton who, in 2000, inaugurated with Hindu nationalist prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee the concept of Washington and New Delhi as "allies in the cause of democracy." George W. Bush gave meaning to that historic declaration by recognizing India as a de facto but responsible member of the nuclear club. Now it is Mr. Obama's turn to make clear that the United States, as the world's most powerful democracy, recognizes India's role in Asia as not only the most populous democracy and rising economic power but also as a vital strategic player.
It took a long time for the United States, Canada and other countries to dispense with the myth that India and Pakistan are somehow equal. This welcome change took a back seat after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Bush made the mistake of paying too much attention to Islamabad as a tactical ally when, in fact, the Pakistani military had actually created the Taliban extremists, who then made Afghanistan the world headquarters of terrorism by playing host to al-Qaeda.
China also has a stake in Afghanistan, which for more than 1,000 years has served as gateway to the Indian subcontinent for invaders. Afghanistan's Pamir panhandle touches China, which is Islamabad's closest ally and the alleged supplier of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
The morning after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, the only car outside the U. S. embassy in New Delhi belonged to the Chinese ambassador. Then, Beijing was anxious to stop the revival of Russian imperialism in Central Asia, and knew that only the United States could do it. Now, if Washington signals its intention to pull out of Afghanistan along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Beijing is bound to make its own bid to dominate the region, either alongside or through Pakistan.
Moscow, conforming to its undying imperialist appetite, might well make another bid to take control. That would leave India and, ironically, Iran to resist alien intrusion in their backyards. But if U.S. willpower dries up, the Indians might well decide to return to their old friends the Russians against China and Pakistan, raising the frightening prospect of a nuclear exchange.
The alternative to these and other nightmare scenarios is an alliance for democracy, whether formal or informal. Canada is among the countries that have been quietly exploring this idea - Indians call it "engagement" with the West and Japan - for several years. That's why Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to India, before next week's sortie to China, was so important. It's why the Obama-Singh talks in Washington can be important, too.
They may also fail to achieve anything of substance, leaving China, with its economic clout, a clear path to expand what amounts to an empire founded on political despotism. It's significant that Beijing's leaders chose the time before Mr. Obama's visit to mount a vicious propaganda campaign against India for daring to be a rival, just as they regularly do against Japan.
Although India, with its federal parliamentary system, is far ahead of China, it may still be the world's most imperfect democracy. India continues to have huge problems, including the spread of Maoist revolts in remote areas. Perhaps 40 per cent of its 1.2 billion people live in desperate poverty.
But India is catching up economically. A third of its population has attained the Indian equivalent of middle-class status. In 2010, manufacturing will outpace agriculture for the first time, and the Indian high-tech industry is ahead of China's. The decades of stagnation caused by the licence raj of the doctrinaire socialist Nehru-Gandhi dynasty have ended, and no one deserves more credit than Mr. Singh, first as finance minister and now as prime minister.
India also wants recognition as a major power. It rightly sees not Pakistan but China as its main rival. It is involved in Afghanistan, mainly because collapse of the U.S.-led coalition there would lead to an Islamist power on its border, bringing unavoidable destabilization. It is impossible to envisage an alliance for democracy without India.
David Van Praagh, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in India and Asia, is a professor of journalism at Carleton University. He is the author of The Greater Game: India's Race with Destiny and China.