SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Fantasy versus reality: While more than 100,000 American and other troops were splashing around Iraq ostensibly to create a democracy out of that war-torn nation of 25 million mainly Sunni and Shiite Muslims, a Hindu-Muslim nation of more than 1 billion people was actually committing democracy.

More than 380 million people voted in the recent nationwide elections in India , results counted and made known within days. This was a different story from the Philippines , where they are still counting, or even from the United States , where they counted, recounted, then tabulated chads and still the country had to appeal to the high court to figure out who won. And then the prize went to the candidate with fewer votes.

Say what you want about India , but it’s the world’s largest, truly practicing and thus the most wonderfully messy democracy.

This recent reminder was not lost on the delegates who attended the conference of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation last weekend in this gorgeous California-coast resort town. This little-publicized retreat attracted some of the liveliest political minds, from Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame to Richard Falk, a leading intellectual proponent of international law as a global order-shaping force, to internationally known disarmament and environmental advocate Helen Caldicott.

These delegates, having all but despaired (for the time being, anyway) that the world’s second-largest democracy would do the right thing on issues of war and peace, began to hope that maybe the South Asian country of Gandhi and Nehru might have a few precedent-setting answers for the world.

They imagined a reverse nuclear-arms race in which those who have nuclear arsenals would voluntarily relinquish them, thus triggering a historic armaments down-spiral and shaming the two big boys into doing the same.

For the United States and Russia together possess something like 97 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and together could blow the Earth to smithereens, and probably set the moon off course as well.

Both India and Pakistan have bombs, though many fewer. Pakistan has nuclearized because India has done so; India keeps them because Pakistan has them. “But what if those who hold them decided not to keep them?” wondered Ellsberg, the ever-feisty septuagenarian. “Maybe India and Pakistan might lead the way?”

As preposterous as that might seem, there’s a better chance of that happening than Washington and Moscow leading (which they should have done after the fall of the Berlin Wall). But should Pakistan and India lead the way to a safer, more secure world by negotiating bilateral nuclear disarmament, not only would South Asia – and by extension the world – be more secure, the entire region would start to become less poor.

It’s now, as a totality, the world’s single poorest region (mainly defined by India , Pakistan , Bangladesh and Sri Lanka ). Some half a billion there live below the poverty level. More children are out of school there than in the rest of the world; so, not surprisingly, the region is home to half the globe’s illiterates. More than 337 million lack safe drinking water; 400 million go hungry every day; 830 million lack rudimentary sanitation.

Pakistan doesn’t have enough money to feed, clothe and educate its people, but it somehow can find the dough to buy three submarines from France . India has a titanic rural poverty problem – which the victorious Congress party skillfully exploited. But it still finds money for multibillion-dollar fighter aircraft.

What’s unclear is whether the current age’s obsession with seeking security through arms – instead of education, justice and economic stability – will pass.

How about a nice whiff of optimism from professor Falk: “What occurs in history is often what we cannot foresee. Let us prefer the politics of impossibility as opposed to the conventional wisdom of politics as the art of the possible.”

Imagine a world in which almost all children went to bed properly fed and woke up to be properly educated.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, whose column appears regularly in The Advertiser, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and founder of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. Reach him at