WASHINGTON — Five years ago, India's nationalist Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was just a blip on the political radar and linked to several extremist groups. But the party's apparent gains in the Parliament Wednesday may force the United States to pay closer attention to the world's largest democracy.
The projected outcome of India's election, the 11th since independence from Britain 49 years ago, indicates a further collapse of the secular, multiethnic ruling Congress Party and is not what Washington hoped for.
To the extent that the US has had an India policy in recent years, it hinged on getting New Delhi to renounce its nuclear weapons program and to keep ethnic harmony in a land with 110 million Muslims. Currently, the White House is pressuring India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by a June deadline - in order to get Pakistan to do the same.
The final results of the parliamentary elections aren't expected until this weekend and the composition of the new ruling coalition is uncertain at this point. But Washington is concerned about the rising influence of the BJP in this nation of 920 million people.
The BJP wants to declare India a nuclear state. It also promises to change India's Constitution to formally reclaim the bitterly contested Muslim-majority area of Kashmir as wholly under Indian rule - and will renounce special Muslim rights throughout India.
Still, US officials are hoping that the job of being in power will curb what it considers BJP's hard edges.
"It's a political party with nationalist aspirations in a functioning democracy," says one official. "That implies certain responsibilities."
Since the end of the cold war, say US officials, India's profile has changed in a paradoxical manner. While the country is no longer on the front lines of the cold war, important as a regional friend of the Soviet Union - it also cannot be considered a "backwater" state. Its economic growth and potential put it in a league with China.
"Indo-American relations are growing steadily in importance," one US diplomat told the Monitor, "and will continue to do so."
In keeping with old rivalries in the region, India's relations with the US tend to be shaped by how India defines the American relationship to Pakistan. This definition got the Clinton administration off to a rocky start with India. New Delhi felt a pro-Pakistani tilt in the White House.
For one thing, the US official in charge of South Asia, Robin Raphael, had been married until the early 1970s to the US ambassador to Pakistan who perished with Pakistan's leader General Zia in a 1988 plane crash. US officials say the suspicion of Ms. Raphael's bias is unfounded. But Indian officials point to multiple trips to Pakistan by Raphael and statements that seemed unsolicitous about India.
(Pakistan was and still is viewed in some official Washington circles as a buffer against Islamic radicalism, particularly in Iran.)
The leisurely White House time frame on its first state meeting with Prime Minster P.V. Narasimha Rao - in May 1994 - also caused pique in New Delhi.
Currently, the State Department is expected to pursue a "China policy" on India. That is, as with Beijing, the US will aggressively promote economic growth and cooperation - and take a softer line on human rights and democracy.
Meanwhile, American policy makers will be closely watching the emerging BJP. The party is now considered the largest and most disciplined in India, made up mainly of high-caste Hindus from the business class. The party, which promotes a strong Hindu revival prompted by Hindu legends widely broadcast on the media, regards India as a Hindu state.
Since last year, BJP has presented itself as a moderate party. Its candidate for prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is described as a moderate who was briefly India's foreign minister in the 1970s.
But in 1992, the party was widely seen as responsible for violence against Muslims in many parts of the country, including the destruction of a famous 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya that left 2,500 Indians dead.