NEW DELHI — Scarred by his ignominious final acts in office, former U.S. President Bill Clinton stepped out of the shadow of scandal to try and be a healer during his just-completed tour of the earthquake-ravaged western Indian state of Gujarat. In New Delhi this week, Clinton was welcomed by another scandal-tainted leader, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is fighting for his political life after a bribery expose damaged his government.

For Clinton and Vajpayee, the much-publicized tour helped shift attention from the scandals plaguing them to the almost-forgotten disaster that devastated large parts of Gujarat. However, it will take Clinton a lifetime to rebuild his shattered image, and the bribery scandal is likely to haunt the ailing Vajpayee to the bitter end.

Clinton and Vajpayee epitomize the attrition of political ethics and the decline of leadership standards in the world.

The stench from Clinton’s parting presidential gifts points to the deepening political baseness: his midnight pardons of many drug dealers, swindlers and other assorted felons were allegedly tied, in some cases, to pledges of donations to his library foundation. The sleaze was also apparent from the role of his brother and brother-in-law in pleading the cases of some felons, the release of four convicted swindlers in exchange for votes from the Hasidic Jewish community for Sen. Hillary Clinton, and the pardon of Marc Rich after the fugitive broker’s ex-wife contributed more than $1 million to Clinton and the Democratic Party.

The once charismatic Vajpayee has led a government by cronyism. The more his health has faltered, the more the power of his political cronies has grown. His closest buddy, Jaswant Singh, a politician with no grassroots base, now presides over the powerful foreign and defense ministries.

The bribery expose shows the extent to which the Vajpayee government is guided by big money and powerful lobbies. It will be difficult for Vajpayee’s party to live down the image of its president being caught on video camera accepting a cash bribe from fake arms dealers.

At their private dinner meeting in New Delhi, Clinton and Vajpayee had an opportunity to exchange notes on life in political disgrace.

Clinton’s tour, which also took him to Calcutta and the north Indian countryside, signaled his determination to return to his original post-White House plans, which were upset by the controversy and scandal that marked his entry into private life. While promoting peace and good causes, Clinton had planned to rake in big bucks on the speaking circuit.

On his India tour, sponsored by prominent Indian Americans, Clinton sought major contributions — the very drive that brought him in trouble at home. Some Indian industrialists and Indian-American businessmen have pledged large contributions to his library foundation and to the causes he espouses, including earthquake relief.

In his first role as a global healer, Clinton ironically chose a country that he neglected for much of his presidency. He came to India only toward the fag end of his presidency, but made himself immensely popular with the Indian chattering class — a fact underlined by the adulation he was accorded on his latest tour.

Clinton left the White House with no India policy, although the Vajpayee government portrayed the presidential visit in March 2000 as a turning point in U.S.-Indian relations. One of Clinton’s last presidential acts — letting China off the hook on its missile transfers to Pakistan — showed his insensitivity toward India.

After the barren years under Clinton, the United States and India now have an opportunity to begin forging a strategic partnership. The growing power disequilibrium in Asia, accentuated by China’s rise and Russia’s and Japan’s decline, undergirds the need for such a partnership between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies.

But Vajpayee, looking increasingly like a spent leader, is too hooked to the Clinton era, which improved the bilateral atmosphere but yielded little on substance. Despite the growing convergence of interests, the United States and India have yet to forge links of strategic cooperation.

In fact, Vajpayee is too ill and too politically compromised to grasp the full inappropriateness of the signal he sent to the Bush White House by hosting the still-damaged Clinton. To make amends, however, he quickly dispatched to Washington Jaswant Singh, who managed to meet President George W. Bush and some top U.S. officials just as Clinton arrived in New Delhi. But while he was in Washington, Singh sent his own wrong signal to the Republican administration by hosting a lunch for his friend Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, whose name is anathema to Bush.

Vajpayee needlessly created the impression during the U.S. presidential campaign that New Delhi favored Al Gore. This notion was reinforced by Vajpayee’s poorly timed visit to Washington and New York last September and his meetings with Gore, Hillary Clinton and some Democratic fundraisers from the Indian-American community. That community, whose clout in Washington has grown, erred in putting most of its eggs in the Democratic basket.

India has to work hard to develop a rapport with the Bush team and a strategic partnership with Washington. For that, it must first emerge from the Clinton shadow.

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