Leading article: India - a nascent Asian superpower

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The Independent Online

It is surprising, considering his professed enthusiasm for democracy, that George Bush has never found the time to visit the world's most populous democratic state. But this will be put right tomorrow when the American President touches down in New Delhi for a meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Manhoman Singh.

These talks are unlikely to yield any great breakthroughs. The details of a nuclear technology deal in which the US will share its expertise with India in exchange for a formal separation of India's military and civilian programmes have already been accepted by both sides. But this visit has a symbolic value - and one that goes beyond it being just another meeting between the heads of two large democracies. President Bush's trip is a confirmation of India's status as a nascent Asian superpower. One of the reasons the attitude of the Bush administration towards India has changed over the past half decade is the economic rise of China. It suits the US to have a strong India that can act as a countervailing force to Beijing in the region.

India's new status is founded on its own runaway economic growth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its economy has nearly doubled in size in a decade. And it is now even catching up with the Chinese rate of expansion. For a country that has historically looked inward, India's opening up to foreign investment in recent years has been remarkable. Markets have been liberalised and economic reforms pushed through at a dizzying pace. And under Prime Minister Singh's Congress Party, which took over from a long-serving Hindu nationalist administration two years ago, this trend has shown no signs of slowing.

The secret of India's success has been in tapping its vast human capital. The Indian state and middle classes have always valued education. Indian universities now produce a formidable number of managers, technicians and scientists every year. Most of them speak English, making India an even more attractive investment proposition to the investors of the Anglophone world.

India's progress in recent years should not, of course, be allowed to conceal the state's persistent failings. Poverty is still widespread and on a scale inconceivable to those of us in the West. The country's sanitation, power and transport infrastructure is still very backward. At the heart of its political system there is corruption and stifling bureaucracy. And growing inequalities between the urban rich and the rural poor are creating new tensions and resentments.

But India is undoubtedly moving in the right direction, and its vast potential is plain. Now, it seems, even the unilateralists of the Bush administration can afford to ignore it no longer.