The shrill sound of a peacock calling out from its perch high on the security fence echoed around the walls of the stately backyard compound.

Standing beside me was the leader of 1 billion people in the largest democracy in the world: Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India.

We were about to have afternoon tea together in the well-secured backyard of his home in New Delhi, the capital of India.

"Do you have children," he asked, in a quiet but genuine tone.

It fascinated me that this man so intertwined with international affairs would want to take the time to ask me about children. "Yes, I have three," I told him.

He told me about his own, including of his daughter's recent travels to New York and the United States, and how many Indian families have some sort of direct connection to America.

It was textbook statesmanship on his part.

Prime Minister Singh, over a cup of tea and under the tug of a heavy heartstring tied to our mutual love as parents, ensured that the conversation to follow about world affairs including war and terrorism would be one of personal interest, not a distant headline.

***

It was almost three years ago when I met the prime minister. I was in India on a fellowship sponsored through Johns Hopkins University, and he is one of several world leaders I have interviewed over the years. However, Singh and his Gandhi-like peaceful and personal approach most certainly makes him stand out from the crowd.

But his personal demeanor disguises a stalking tiger, a tiger that the United States must measure in its pace.


Advertisement

"I give you, what we do in India has some significance for the rest of the world," Singh said in one of the understatements of the century when the conversation moved to business.

Ten years ago, prior to Singh being elected prime minister, India and its longtime bitter enemy Pakistan moved the entire world to the edge of its seat.

Both nations tested nuclear weapons.

The United States placed sanctions on India because of the tests. They remained in place until the U.S. quickly realized how desperately it needed friends in the area after the day of Sept. 11, 2001.

Suddenly, both India and its neighboring Pakistan had an entirely new place of importance on our map of allies. There were al-Qaida terrorists with strongholds in nearby Afghanistan. And unlike the Russians who invaded that nation and faltered during the 1980s, the U.S. construed its battleplan for Afghanistan with a vengeance born of anger and determination unmatched since Pearl Harbor in 1941.

India and Pakistan could either aid the U.S., or get out of its way.

The longer term picture, however, was not so simple.

India seized the moment.

***

America's war in Iraq and the war against terrorism by targeting enemies hiding inside of Afghanistan gave India not only concern as a front-seat witness to the unrest, but it gave the nation yet another platform in which to flex its rapidly growing industrial muscle and its envious desire for world influence.

India wants oil.

While the world watched as China bumped the United States from sole possession of the economic driver's seat, India strapped in for the ride as well. Its growing high-tech industry coupled with a plentiful labor force has turned India into a major player on the world economic scene.

India's growth has out-paced its infrastructure. There are power surges and outages almost every day, even in major cities, and many businesses routinely keep back-up generators ready for operation.

That is why India is among those not so adamant about talk of limiting who gets nuclear power and who doesn't. It sees how nations might want to diversify their resources available, and there is no nation better at understanding diversity than India. Even its air force is made up of jets produced in several nations of differing political doctrine so that India always has options for suppliers. And as for the diversity of its people, it seems that the vision of the late Mohandas Gandhi to see Hindu and Muslims living together in peace is being largely realized.

***

Things in Afghanistan are not looking good for Americans at the moment.

How things are looking in the overall war on terrorism is another matter, depending on what looking glass you use.

The battleground seems once again to be shifting, as American intelligence officials see al-Qaida forces suffering setbacks in Iraq and trying to rebuild in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, where the Taliban also is regaining strength and threatens American interests.

This means more American lives are about to be at risk on another front in the war.

India always has shaken its head over America's alliance with Pakistan. It worries that there remains an unstable government there that might get worse before it gets better, and India is bothered by the steady flow of U.S. military support to Pakistan. It never wants to see this firepower used against India.

America already has a long-established reputation for being pushy to get what it wants.

"You recognize India as being the world's largest democracy," a member of India's parliament said, "But when it comes to the role of dialogue, you prefer the role of dictatorship."

Prime Minister Singh keeps a level head, a watchful eye and a steady grip on the situation.

"There are no insurmountable barriers to our continued cooperation," he calmly said.

That was three years ago, and several hundred American lives ago in the war on terrorism that includes Iraq.

I'm extremely proud, and more so thankful, that our military men and women and our leaders have thus far been victorious in taking the fight to the evil-doers who would like to see America destroyed, and who have prevented a repeat of Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet, as this expensive war drags on and we wonder when it will stop, I think about people such as Prime Minister Singh and the growing uncertainty that masses on his borders unless the United States keeps such evil in check.

I wonder what he thinks of having to live in such constant threat, of America's friendship, and of America itself in being so bold in seeking out its enemies. Like Israel, if India did the same by fighting outside its own soil, chaos would follow.

I think about his children.

It is, after all, a small world that we share. What America does affects the world. What India does affects the world. And that is my point.

So I think about the children, and I remember the day a complex man became so simple with a little cup of tea.

Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, N.M., 87401; or at tturner@daily-times.com.