India’s American Relations

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New Delhi – With America’s presidential election looming, perhaps its most striking aspect from an Indian point of view is that no one in New Delhi is unduly concerned about the outcome. There is now a broad consensus in Indian policy making circles that, whoever wins, India-United States relations are more or less on the right track.

Democrats and Republicans alike have both been responsible for this development. President Barack Obama’s successful visit to India in 2010, and his historic speech to a joint session of Parliament, capped the most significant recent milestone in bilateral relations. This was one of many encounters that Obama has had with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in various forums since taking office, often in multilateral summits like the G-20, and it consolidated the new relationship that has emerged from a decade of dramatic change.

Throughout the Cold War, the world’s oldest democracy and its largest were essentially estranged. America’s initial indifference was best reflected in President Harry Truman’s reaction when Chester Bowles asked to be named ambassador to India: “I thought India was pretty jammed with poor people and cows round streets, witch doctors, and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges…but I did not realize anybody thought it was important.”

If that was bad, India’s political orientation was worse. The American preference for making anti-communist allies, however unsavory, tied Washington to Pakistan’s increasingly Islamist dictatorship, while India’s non-aligned democracy drifted toward the secular Soviet embrace. The US government regarded non-alignment with distaste; Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, notoriously declared that “neutrality between good and evil is itself evil.” In a world divided between two uncompromising superpowers, India’s temporizing seemed like appeasement at best, and aid and comfort for the enemy at worst.

Pakistan, on the other hand, became an essential component in America’s strategy of containment of the Soviet Union and in its later opening to China. From India’s point of view, US indulgence of Pakistan became overt hostility when the US sent the Sixth Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in support of the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh in 1971. Tempers cooled soon enough, but India was always regarded as tilting toward the Kremlin, hardly a recommendation for warm relations in American eyes.

With the end of the Cold War, and India’s reorientation of its foreign policy, as well as its increasing integration into the global economy, a thaw set in. India’s detonation of a nuclear device in 1998, however, triggered a fresh round of US sanctions.

President Bill Clinton began to turn things around with a hugely successful visit to India in 2000, his last year in office. George W. Bush’s administration took matters much further, with a defense agreement in 2005 and a landmark accord on civil nuclear cooperation in 2008 (which remains the centerpiece of the transformed relationship).

The nuclear accord simultaneously accomplished two things. It admitted India into the global nuclear club, despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. More important, it acknowledged that US exceptionalism had found a sibling. Thanks to the US, which strong-armed the 45 countries of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into swallowing their concerns that special treatment for India could constitute a precedent for rogue nuclear aspirants like Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, there is now an “Indian exception.”

Under Obama, nothing quite so dramatic was possible: no spectacular breakthroughs were conceived or executed, nor could many have been imagined. But Obama – who had displayed a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his Senate office, carried a locket of the Hindu god Hanuman, and spoke often of his desire to build a “close strategic partnership” with India –struck the right symbolic chords in New Delhi and won over the fractious parliament.

The US is India’s largest trading partner (if both goods and services are included). American exports to India have grown faster in the last five years than those to any other country. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimates that, despite the recent global financial crisis and the US recession that sparked it, bilateral trade in services is likely to grow from $60 billion to more than $150 billion in the next six years.

During the Obama years, there has been progress on other fronts – the small but significant steps that add up to strengthening the sinews of a relationship. Agreements on seemingly mundane subjects like agriculture, education, health, and even space exploration and energy security attest to enhanced cooperation. The two governments have also proclaimed initiatives on clean energy and climate change. Significant trade and investment deals, as well as growing linkages between American and Indian universities, have confirmed that each country is developing a more significant stake in the other than ever before.

As a result, Indians will follow the unfolding US elections, like everyone else, with more than passing interest. But, unlike most of the rest of the world, they will feel very little anxiety about the outcome.

Shashi Tharoor
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Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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