The World from The Hill: Strong bond urged with 'most important ally' India

The leaders of one of the largest caucuses in Congress marked India's independence day by encouraging stronger ties between Washington and the world's largest democracy.

This includes a push for heightened security cooperation as India faces threats from terrorist organizations rooted in its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan, say the co-chairmen of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.

India was rocked in 2008 by the Mumbai attacks, which were considered an evolution in smaller-scale terrorist operations. Ten gunmen spreading out to various public locations killed 166 people over three days.

Indications last fall that al Qaeda had been planning a Mumbai-style attack in European tourist destinations put the EU on alert and sparked a State Department travel caution.

The terror spree also was an ominous warning that what is tested by terror operatives in India could easily happen on the soil of its allies.

"There is a whole amalgam of Islamist groups that operate on Pakistani soil; those groups often end up targeting Europe or the U.S.," caucus co-chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill.

"One of the greatest threats out there is another Mumbai," said Royce, who is also chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. "Greater cooperation with India in terms of counterterrorism is essential in this regard."

The other co-chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), introduced a resolution Wednesday, India's Republic Day, calling for "the continued strengthening of relations between the United States and the Republic of India." It also "recognizes the people and Government of India for building and maintaining a constitutional democracy." The measure has 10 co-sponsors, including Royce.

"India is probably going to be our most important ally this century," Crowley, who also sits on the Foreign Affairs panel, told The Hill, stressing the common security and economic interests shared by the two powers.

On Friday, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon met with his Indian counterpart at the White House for "candid, in-depth discussions" following up on those issues tackled during President Obama's November visit.

That includes greater economic cooperation between the U.S. and one of its largest trading and investment partners.

Royce pointed out the stability of India through the global recession, though he said reforms are needed on the "burdensome regulatory environment that discourages private sector growth there."

"You can imagine how both our economies would benefit from increased engagement and cutting back bureaucratic red tape," he said.

The greater cooperation sought includes defense. Royce noted the importance of moving New Dehli away from its tradition of buying Russian military equipment, which goes back to the country's long relationship with the Soviets, and instead purchasing U.S. defense products.

"I often remind the Obama administration of the importance of this aspect," Royce said, stressing that a generation later there's been a shift "in India's overreliance from what was the former Soviet Union to a stronger relationship with the United States."

The India caucus boasts about 180 members from both sides of the aisle. It was formed in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union and at a time when India's close ties with Moscow had sullied India's relations with Washington. The caucus founders saw the formation as an opportunity to educate members about the change of direction within India.

"It is a country based upon democratic ideals and political pluralism," Royce said.

The large number of members in the caucus, Crowley said, "is really reflective of the Indo-American community; they're in every town, every city in America."

The members bring concerns of their constituencies that extend beyond foreign relations, he said, to include discrimination issues such as Sikhs being singled out for wearing turbans.

Humanitarian concerns drive the caucus members, as well.

Royce said the caucus has become "very engaged" in an effort that involves the Red Cross, World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to vaccinate children against measles in the country of nearly 1.2 billion people, where every day more than 300 youths die of the disease.

The caucus also pushes cooperative efforts in earthquake-aftermath preparation, which Indian-American engineers working for FEMA in California have done with their Indian counterparts.

Both congressmen said increased security cooperation with India shouldn't put a damper on U.S. influence with Pakistan.

Crowley said U.S. involvement with both of the nuclear nemeses can help them "find a way forward, create a better dialogue and atmosphere between the two countries so that the threat of war is diminished."

Royce said the extremism threatening India also threatens Pakistan. He referenced the recent assassination of Punjabi governor Salman Taseer, a liberal politician shot by his own guard in Islamabad. Afterward, 500 Pakistani religious scholars warned that anyone who mourned the governor, who opposed capital punishment blasphemy laws, would suffer the same fate.

"If the government had removed him from the governorship, there wouldn't have been the need for someone to shoot him," Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan's main Islamist political parties, said in a statement after the Jan. 4 killing.

"For the average Indian, change in Pakistani society in the growth of extremism represents something of a shock," Royce said. "They see Pakistani society apparently evolving toward a tolerance for jihadi-type activities or the elimination of minorities in Pakistan. ... This gives rise to concerns about the security of the region."

Especially in the face of the terrorism within Pakistan, Crowley said, he believes both Pakistan and India "understand that the U.S. will do what's in our interest to promote security here and abroad."

"India and the U.S. face similar challenges. Look no further than what happened in Mumbai; they're under constant threat," he said. "India has known terrorism for quite some time and I think there's quite a lot we can learn from India, and vice versa."