For two countries that are multi-cultural democracies and open societies, it is staggering that India and the United States have had the most roller coaster sort of relationship for about a century.
Despite Franklin D Roosevelt pleading India’s case for Independence with Winston Churchill and Barack Obama calling India & the USA “natural allies”, geo-political and strategic interests had often put the two countries on different sides in the interim period. Whether it was Nehru’s discomforting visit in 1949 or the Nixon-Kissinger era, relations have varied from lukewarm to downright frosty.
It is not to say that there weren’t leaders who saw potential in joining hands if not hearts; Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were early advocates of friendship, and Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr have been openly warm friends.
In India, Nehru embarked on his foreign policy path of non-alliance and support of Communist China. In the reign of Indira Gandhi, we discontinued the shiploads of food aid, and her open hostility when Richard Nixon visited India was fully reciprocated by him. The main thorn in the relationship then was Pakistan, a close ally of the United States throughout the cold war era when India had sided with the USSR.
When the Berlin Wall fell, it brought down a lot of diplomatic barriers around the world as well – for it was a harbinger of the end of the Cold War. The geo-political map of the world was set to change. Though belated, it was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who seized the moment and despite the ineffective sanctions imposed by Clinton post Pokharan nuclear tests, he went that extra mile to cultivate America as a friend.
Then 9/11 changed the world in the same way as the Berlin wall did with Geroge Bush Jr openly coming out again Islamic terrorist modules, many of which he understood operated out of ally Pakistan’s territory (though he misunderstood a lot about Iraq over the same issue).
By 9/11, the world was again a changed place – the unipolar pivot embedded in Uncle Sam’s courtyard was being economically and militarily challenged by the rise of China. And Pakistan was increasingly looking like a country in shambles with Islamic hoodlums running riot on the Pak-Afghan border, while India had slowly opened its economy and adopted the liberalization policy unlocking the doors of the middle class market to the world.
In this scenario, it was no surprise then that Dr Manmohan Singh and George Bush saw the warmest ever relations which were sealed by the Indo-US nuclear treaty, IAEA and NSG exemptions pushed by the US and initiation of the Indo-US strategic dialogue.
Since the time Dr Manmohan Singh openly proclaimed to George Bush that India “loves you” (and that did raise eyebrows), relations have cooled off, more circumstantially than for any purpose of strategy. Barack Obama did come to India, addressed the joint session of Parliament and backed India for a permanent seat of the Security Council, but has done little to take ties forward.
Rather relations deteriorated last December to the point of a diplomatic confrontation over a trifle of an issue – the Devyani Khobragade case where the Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip searched for alleged mistreatment of a maid and visa fraud. India retaliated with a series of measures against American clubs in India, removing immunity of US embassy vehicles and staff and by deporting two Americans, Wayne May and his wife Alicia.
But the removed officials only made matters worse through a series of social media comments describing India as a “zoo” and blaming vegetarianism for sexual assaults.
Another bone of contention recently has been a series of revelations, including through Edward Snowden’s wikileaks, that the US resorted to spying on Indian leaders, India’s UN mission at New York and Embassy at Washington.
The biggest oddity, however, during Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House will be the delicate balancing act that the US would have to do as they welcome him – perhaps they have themselves never encountered such a peculiar case where they would have to roll out the red carpet for a man who was denied even a simple tourist visa.
The incident is one among the many of America’s eccentric self defeating faux pas. Had the visa been denied after much thought, taking into consideration Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, one would have still understood, but the story was in reality quite different.
If one were to believe Fareed Zakaria, it so happened that the US had enacted International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 to promote and safeguard diverse religious interests, but the government soon came under criticism for using IRFA only to protect the Christian community. As a means to stave off censure, it decided to arbitrarily slap the provision against Gujarat Chief Minister Modi to show this as a means of support for the Muslim community.
Thinking that a denial of visa to a hardly known provincial leader would cause no real harm, little did the US anticipate that the issue would one day snowball into a huge controversy and that the regional leader would take the centrestage as the Indian Prime Minister.
The US was also late to sense the winds of change and was among the last to establish diplomatic relations and build bridges with Modi, much after the UK and EU were already holding dialogues with the then CM.
Modi has put up a show of generosity to indicate that ties between countries are more significant than individual slights, and had accepted Obama’s invitation to visit Washington with alacrity. It is difficult to believe that behind the facade of the bonhomie that they will put up later this month, there won’t be a thorn in Modi’s heart and blushes on the face of the Americans.
The Indian Prime Minister, who has little foreign affairs experience, is most keen to build relations to boost the economy and defence cooperation. Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister, has already said that H1B Visa issue would be on top of the agenda when the two leaders meet, particularly in view of the increased difficulties for IT professionals affecting businesses of companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro.
Modi would also be addressing Indian Americans at the Madison Square Garden in New York, reviving strategic dialogue between the two countries besides being hosted by Obama for dinner and lunch by Vice President Joe Biden where issues like energy security, membership to Nuclear Suppliers Group, setting up of foreign university branches in India and sharing of technology are likely to come up.
The situation in Afghanistan, continuance of terror hotbeds in Pakistan would figure prominently as would the situation is Syria and the rise of ISIS. India could play a significant role in serving as a bridge between the US and Iran, whose assistance may prove vital if the new wave of Sunni Islamic terrorism is to be contained.
Modi is likely to be accompanied by top Indian business magnates much like the delegation to Japan and he himself would hold one on ones with US tycoons representing Boeing, GE, Goldman Sachs and IBM, other than hosting a luncheon with CEOs of companies like Pepsi, MasterCard and Lockheed Martin.
Undoubtedly, the US has now fully comprehended India’s transformation, political mood and impatience to get growth back on track. Equally, Obama understands that Modi is a very popular leader, as of now at least, and his worldwide following can be gauged by the fact that his twitter following has pipped that of the White House and stands behind only Obama’s.
After the recent couple of years of inertia, the Indo-US ties need a push to step up to the next level. There is a lot the two countries can draw from each other, and especially Modi can gain from his reputation. During his visit to India in 2010, Obama had described America’s relationship with India as a “a defining partnership for the 21st century". It is time that the blueprint for this relationship is defined and executed.