Will Yoda frequent Wehrkunde no more?
That question is code for this scribe's personal and disappointed reaction to the defeat of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's coalition government in India just as it threatened to become an important U.S. partner and a major player in global economics and politics. I'll decrypt that knee-jerk reaction at the end, after setting the larger scene.
Positive outcomes -- integrating India into the global economy or improving New Delhi's relations with Washington, for example -- may still be attained under the new coalition government to be run by the Congress Party. But the prospects for either are less promising than they would have been under Vajpayee, who was President Bush's most unlikely strategic partner abroad.
There is one obvious conclusion to draw from the results of last week's balloting in the world's largest democracy: Uncle Sam's coattails do not stretch to foreign political leaders this year. Incumbents abroad with an American connection gain no advantage by brandishing it before voters. They may even pay a price for getting too close to the Bush White House.
Britain's Tony Blair already pays that price within his Labor Party, even as he presides over a robust economy. In Spain, Jose Maria Aznar's conservatives fell in March despite a strong economic record. Now Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist party and its regional allies, which steered India to impressive growth rates, must hand over power to the once-discredited leftist groups led by Sonia Gandhi.
But larger -- and smaller -- forces than Bush's unpopularity abroad are at work as electorates oust or rail unrelentingly at leaders who have mastered the economics of globalization while seeming to neglect the little folk back home.
I think of this as the distemper of our times: Electorates may be punishing today's leaders for failing to deliver on the past decade's overblown promises of globalization -- or at least for failing to mitigate the negative consequences in citizens' lives of the greater flow of goods, labor, technology, capital and culture across porous national borders.
This may well be the key battleground state of mind in the United States on Nov. 2. And the European Union's ambitious enlargement to 25 members sets up its own national days of reckoning on this score.
An initial report by the Reuters news agency called the defeat "a resounding rejection" of Vajpayee's market reform program "by the disaffected rural poor who feel excluded from India's economic boom." Other factors count as well. Ideologues in Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attributed the rural losses to the prime minister's efforts to make peace with Pakistan and a de-emphasis of Hindu nationalism.
And a diplomatic blunder by the Bush administration may have also contributed to Vajpayee's surprise ouster. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the Asian subcontinent in March, while little noticed in the United States, left many Indians feeling that Vajpayee had been deliberately stiffed and humiliated by the Bush administration.
Powell was feted in New Delhi and then traveled to Islamabad, where he stunned the Indians by announcing without warning that the United States would soon take the symbolically important step of designating Pakistan as a "major non-NATO ally." That sparked a diplomatic protest and a furor in the Indian press.
Administration insiders say Powell was not deceitful. Instead he was mousetrapped by the clever Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, into prematurely announcing a policy step that had not received a final green light in Washington and to which Powell had attached little importance. India's initial reaction and now its election show how wrong the secretary of state got that.
It was not the Bush administration's closeness to Vajpayee that hurt him as much as its failure to deliver anything to compensate for the Indian leader's surprising support for U.S. bases in Central Asia, missile defense and other previously neuralgic subjects. This failure to reward friends is devastating. Tony Blair may have thoughts on this subject.
Which brings me to Yoda. A personal regret is that the BJP defeat removes from office the wise and patient Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee's national security adviser, who was key in implementing India's belated but rapid opening to the world.
Mishra was one of the first important Asian security officials to be invited to speak at the annual Munich Conference on National Security, also known as the Wehrkunde conference, about five years ago. In our chats there and elsewhere since, his gravelly voice, gentle manners, wise words and shining pate reminded me of the Yoda character in "Star Wars." But this time the force was not with him, nor with his boss.