A Brief History Of India-US Relations: Nehru To Modi, Truman To Biden – Analysis


By Gautam Chikermane

The sixth visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States (US) next week will continue the process of cooperation in defence, strategy, and trade between the world’s two largest democracies.

These will have implications, geopolitical and economic, for the rest of the world. The geopolitical implications will ricochet in China and Pakistan, the two nations hyphenated by hatred against India. And the economic implications will resonate in the European Union (EU), Japan, and oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, as the Indian economy heads towards becoming the world’s third largest within this decade. The three days—21, 22, and 23 June 2023—will be a work in progress and further repair of the relationship between an established superpower and an emerging regional power.

The underlying geopolitical landscape in this 31st visit of an Indian prime minister to the US is one of disruption, from a bipolar world divided between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union to a multipolar world with several sovereign voices asserting themselves. When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru met the US President (Harry S. Truman) in October 1949, the world was exiting from World War II and entering a long Cold War. Then, the US wanted India to join its camp; Nehru resisted it and attempted to create a third force—Non-Aligned Movement. The subsequent collapse of relations between India and the US created an opportunity for the latter to turn Pakistan into a weaponised geography.

In turn, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan turned the establishment-supported radical Islam into a weapon of mass terror, the results of which we saw in 9/11, 26/11, and countless other incidents. Over the past decade, the ‘geographical advantage’ Pakistan had against India, supported by the US in the past and by China in the present, has deteriorated into an idea that is well past its use-by date. The US is de-risking (a new word that is replacing decoupling) itself from China; China is deep-coupling with Pakistan; and Pakistan is turning itself into China’s client state hurtling towards a constitutional-economic-military implosion (track the unravelling of Pakistan here). A big chapter in using geography as a front for Islamic terror is ending.

Looking within, India’s relationship with the US continued to remain tense from Nehru to his daughter Prime Minister Indira, who took the nod by her father towards socialism to a new low, embraced it with both hands and smothered entrepreneurship. The three trips she made to the US as prime minister, in March 1966, November 1971, and July 1982, kept the India-US relationship sour. In the 1971 War with Pakistan that created the state of Bangladesh, the US supported Pakistan.

The soured economic relationship curdled in 1974 due to India announcing itself as a nuclear nation. India’s expression of its national interest collided with the US on its geopolitical chessboard. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who led a government that came and went in two years, preceded and succeeded by Indira Gandhi, ensured that economic engagement with US declined further. The reason why he visited the US in June 1978, a year after his government ensured and celebrated the exit of Coke and IBM, remains a mystery.

Indira Gandhi’s son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, made three trips to the US, in June 1985, October 1985, and October 1987 that kept the ties alive but stagnant. Domestically, he attempted to make economic policy repairs but couldn’t deliver much; diplomatically, India remained on the fringes of US foreign policy.

Following the biggest economic reforms ushered in by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao under macroeconomic compulsions in 1991, his two trips to the US, in January 1992 and September 1997, began to open the doors of economic engagement. The four visits by his successor Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in September 2000, November 2001, September 2002, and September 2003, added to the economic momentum, that continues till date. In 1998, under Pokhran II, Vajpayee tested five nuclear bombs, irking the US and creating a short-term hurdle. But the deepening of ties had begun. The positive economic momentum counterbalanced the negative strategic independence. As a result, despite the tests, from 2000 onwards, US investments in India began to rise.

But it was not until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took charge that the India-US relationship began to mature and deepen. By 2004, India as a fast-growing large economy was visible—it touched the trillion-dollar mark in 2007 and US$ 2 trillion in 2014. But more than the economy and the rising US investments into India, Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush negotiated and delivered a strategic milestone in the form of the US-India: Civil Nuclear Cooperation, a deal that powered the economic relationship further and cemented the bonds between the two democracies.

During his two terms, Manmohan Singh made eight visits to the US, in September 2004, July 2005, September 2008, November 2008, September 2009, November 2009, April 2010, and September 2013. Two of these (November 2008 and September 2009) were G20 meetings as the grouping got a boost due to the North Atlantic Financial Crisis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the baton of the India-US ties running. Each of his five trips thus far—in September 2014, March-April 2016, June 2016, June 2017, and September 2019—has strengthened the relationship. Modi inherited a US$2 trillion economy, and a strategic goodwill in the form of nuclear cooperation, both of which he has leveraged to strengthen the relationship while adding bits of his own. This convergence of size, strategy and policy has been timely for the US, as it seeks a partnership of trust in the region, disengage from Pakistan and de-risk from China. Alongside Japan and Australia, the Quad is demonstrating its increasing influence.

As a result, India’s position among friendly nations as well as in the Indo-Pacific region has gathered a greater economic, strategic, and technological force in the form of investments, trade, defence ties, and research hubs increase. As data becomes the new oil, India taking a strong stance against Huawei in 5G and a host of other services such as TikTok (for more, read China Tech here), has influenced and resonated not only in the US but also the EU. This will continue.

The strategic-economic inter-operability and common ground is gaining strength. Ironically, the biggest reason for this is a trigger-happy megalomaniac Xi Jinping, the Chairman of Everything in China, running amuck on a land, seas, and markets-grabbing spree. Xi has diminished trust in the Chinese state that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. In the process, he has weakened China’s entrepreneurs. As he chokes Hong Kong’s democracy and attempts to swallow Taiwan, new tensions will be created.

At such a point, India’s democracy, its rising economic size, and strategic geography suddenly become more attractive to the US. On the other side, the relationship carries a future-proof strategic design in the form of defence deals, high technology collaborations, and alternative supply chains for India. Unlike China’s definition of “win-win” which means China wins twice over and eats its benefactors such as the US for breakfast and the EU for lunch, India-US “win-win” means a win for peace, growth and development across the world.

Modi’s visit to the US next week will begin with the International Day of Yoga in the United Nations. This will be followed by a meeting with President Joe Biden in the White House, a State Dinner, an address to the Joint Sitting of the Congress, and a lunch with US Vice President Kamala Harris and US State Secretary Antony Blinken. He will also have several meetings with top CEOs.

Although the short-term focus of his visit will be on the flood of deals that will follow, from policy to defence to investments, what is clear for the long term is that it will be just another day in the strengthening of India-US relations. From the EU to West Asia, the world will be watching this relationship closely and realigning their interests, within the confines of their economic (EU, Japan, and Australia), religious (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), and strategic (Russia, Japan, and Australia) constraints. As a rising India and a consolidating US meet to create a new normal in bilateral ties, the past will no longer tarnish the future. History will look at Modi and Biden to see what the world will look like in the 21st century.

About the author: Gautam Chikermane is Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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