Though Eisenhower got a warm welcome in India (1959) Nehru’s meeting with John F. Kennedy in Washington in 1961 was frosty.
As India–US relations touch the milestone of 70 years; it’s time for a dispassionate look. With two-way trade of $140 billion (the US has a trade deficit of $30 billion but has sold defence products worth $16 billion in the last six years); over 300 joint military exercises and more than 37 missions covering numerous areas of cooperation, from outer space to monsoon prediction and agriculture to education, the transformation of bilateral relationship has been unbelievable, especially in the last 20 years! Bill Clinton became the first President to visit India in 22 years; now the US President and the Indian PM get to meet several times a year at different places. Obama became the first US President to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in January 2015; he is the only US President to have visited India twice in his presidency. India-US relations have never been so wide ranging and multidimensional.
However, everything hasn’t always been hunky dory; India and US relations have experienced many ups and downs and coped with serious differences on a number of bilateral, regional and strategic issues, mostly caused by the changing international scenario and the personality and the priorities of the top leaders. In 1849, when the pacifist and philosopher David Henry Thoreau wrote his essay on civil disobedience, he won’t have imagined that 50 years later, it would resonate with a young Indian lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who was fighting against the discriminatory pol-icies of the apartheid regime in South Africa through his Satyagraha (Truth Force); Gandhi advocated civil resistance while Thoreau favoured civil disobedience.
In 1893, participating in the World Parliament of Religions an Indian monk, Swami Vivekananda, told the “sisters and brothers of America” how all religions were united in core values and what the west could learn from India.
Half a century later, the leader of the civil rights movement in the US, Dr Martin Luther King, drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of nonviolence. President Obama held Gandhi in high esteem, and like Dr King, hung his picture in his dining room.
In 1941, the US President Franklin Roosevelt urged British PM Winston Churchill, “India should be made a Commonwealth country at once. After a certain number of years — five perhaps or ten — she should be able to choose whether she wants to remain in the Empire or have complete independence.” A year later, in his letter to Roosevelt sent through Louis Fischer, Gandhi wrote, “I have profited greatly by the writings of Thoreau and Emerson. I say this to tell you how much I am connected with your country.” Many American scholars and poets including T.S. Eliot were fascinated by the Indian philosophy, especially by the Bhagavat Gita.
With this backdrop, the US and India, multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual, pluralistic, vibrant democracies governed by the rule of law should have been the closest friends. But the tilt towards Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in the UN and making Pakistan a member of CENTO and SEATO sowed the seeds of suspicion and distrust which vitiated the bilateral relations for decades. India was forced to turn to the Soviet Union for addressing her economic needs. The non-alignment was a prudent and imaginative tool for Nehru to keep India out of the Cold War rivalry of the two blocks and to derive maximum possible benefits from both to serve India’s national interests.
Though Eisenhower got a warm welcome in India (1959) Nehru’s meeting with John F. Kennedy in Washington in 1961 was frosty. Under Mrs Indira Gandhi’s premiership, the hand of the CIA was seen in every unexpected political development; it was accused of meddling in the Indian elections in the same way as Russia is being accused of having meddled in the last Presidential election. The relationship reached its nadir in 1971 when President Nixon unabashedly sided with Gen. Yahya Khan and threatened India by sending its 7th fleet to the Bay of Bengal, while Pakistani army committed massacre in East Pakistan. Faced with 10 million refugees, India signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, forced Pakistani army to surrender and helped Bangl-adesh’s birth as an independent nation. Nixon and Kissinger’s reference to Indira Gandhi in private conversations as a bitch conveyed their utter frustration in dealing with her.
But we shouldn’t forget, in the wake of China’s invasion in 1962, the US responded positively to Nehru’s desperate request for military aid. Millions of Indian lives were saved by the huge supplies of the wheat under PL480. America also helped set up IITs during Nehru’s time and contributed significantly to the Green Revolution in India.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of India’s economy by Narsimha Rao and Manmohan singh in 1991-92 created political, economic and strategic conditions for the two countries to reset the relationship. Though India’s nuclear tests in 1998 under Vajpayee’s premiership led to imposition of severe sanctions by President Clinton, it was his visit in 2000 which created the institutional mechanism to broaden and deepen India-US relations; Vajpayee called them: “natural allies”. The Civil Nuclear Agreement (2005) result of heavy lifting by George Bush and Mamnohan Singh ended India’s nuclear isolation; it also heralded a new strategic partnership.
It was further strengthened during Obama Presidency thanks to growing American concerns about the increasing political, economic and military clout of China, her assertiveness in South China Sea and her territorial disputes with her neighbours. The strategic vision for the Asian-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region announced by Obama-Modi (January 2015) and the rechristened strategic vision for Indo-Pacific region stressed by Trump and Modi is aimed at pressuring China to abide the international laws.
Do the signing of LEMOA by India and grant of major defence partner and SAT-1 status to India by the US, amount to overcoming the hesitation of history? Don’t Trump’s utter unpredictability and differences on bilateral issues in public and extraterritorial application of CAATSA, which gravely impacts India’s national security and energy security, pose serious challenges? At a time, when Trump’s tempest is seriously breaching the western alliance, the US can’t find a better partner than India. By all indications, the US will remain the Mecca of all innovations and mother of next generation technologies including AI for foreseeable future and control international financial institutions. So, India must have the best of relations with the US to fulfil the exploding aspiration of millions of her impatient youth. The oldest and the largest democracies must show the maturity and the far-sightedness to take the relationship to the next level in spite of differences on some issues.
The writer is a former diplomat