India-US relations: Decades of a sluggish journey

While Hillary Clinton may have termed Indo-US relations as an “affair of the heart”, in reality these two greatest and biggest democracies of the world have had a history of a chequered past.

Smita Mishra

While Hillary Clinton may have termed Indo-US relations as an “affair of the heart”, in reality these two greatest and biggest democracies of the world have had a history of a chequered past.

The reasons for this have been many. Firstly, before India’s independence in 1947, its external affairs were guided by, more or less, the foreign policy guidelines of the British Government and also because the two countries did not share any common linkages, except one – Columbus discovered America while he thought he had reached India!

Still, when we scour the pre-independence historical annals, US finds only shadowy mention, mainly in the literature produced by the missionaries and, significantly, in cultural pretexts as in Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech in the Parliament of Religions where he draws the attention of the ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ to the veritable treasure of Indian philosophy and its implications on modern life.

Although, the relationship between the US and India remained taut till the end of Cold War, yet the US maintained a shifting predilection towards India to meet its own foreign agenda. Here is a look at how the relations have risen to heights of amiable ecstasy and fallen to alienating depths between the two countries. It`s an interesting story:


After independence, though the decade of 50s was that of poverty and underdevelopment when a weak, divided nation was staggeringly picking up its broken bits, yet, India earned respect internationally due to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s calculative policy of Non-Alignment, at a time when the world had polarised into two blocs. This alienated it from America. The decision of US to sell arms to Pakistan further distanced the two countries. During his visit to US in 1954, Pandit Nehru strongly protested against this but to little avail.

India’s strong socialist leanings and growing closeness with the Soviet Union further strained the relations.

Dwight Eisenhower, known for his India leanings was the first US President to visit us in 1959. A year later America signed a four-year food agreement with India to avert a crisis.

The reign of John F Kennedy (1961-1963), saw India as a partner against the rising power of communist China. This resulted in military and strategic assistance by US to India during its 1962 border conflict with China.

During Kennedy’s period, US helped establish one of the first computer science departments at IIT, Kanpur.

In 1969 Richard Nixon became the second American President to tour India, but not much came out of it.


The decade of seventies saw a change in the foreign policy of the US. While it turned with warmth and support towards Pakistan, it attempted to woo China and decided to ignore India.

The then President Richard Nixon’s dislike towards India and its people is often blamed for this worsening of relations.

During the 1971 war with Bangladesh, US clearly expressed its support in favour of Pakistan. Indira Gandhi’s visit to the US in the same year turned out to be completely fruitless.

The 1974 Pokharan nuclear test resulted in increased suspicion and innumerable economic sanctions on India.

1975 was a significant year as an embargo on arms sale to India was lifted by the then President Gerald Ford.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter visited India.


With the collapse of Communism, American interests and outlook towards the international order changed. Meanwhile its continued help to Pakistan kept India estranged from it.

However, the 80s saw some sunshine and the bilateral relations began to improve due to numerous high level visits and inking of several economic, military and cultural agreements.

Indira Gandhi’s visit to the US in 1982 resulted in the latter agreeing to supply fuel and spare parts for the nuclear power plant at Tarapur.

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the US in 1985 was greatly successful as a bilateral agreement on scientific and technological exchanges was agreed upon by the two states.

In 1988 India and the US signed a bilateral tax treaty.


With the disintegration of USSR in 1991, the Cold War ended, resulting in the rise of new geo-political equations and providing a much needed boost to Indo-US camaraderie. With the introduction of New Economic Reforms by Manmohan Singh, India opened its markets and the relations between the two countries got a fresh lease of life. In fact from 1991 to 2004, the stock of FDI inflow from the US increased from USD $11.3 million to $344.4 million.

In 1994 PM Narasimha Rao visited America when several agreements were signed. He also addressed a joint session of the Congress.

India and US signed an Extradition treaty in 1997.

In 1998 the NDA government tested Nuclear bombs at Pokhran for a second time, resulting in US sanctions under the Glenn Amendment Act.

2000 onwards

The 9/11 attack on America in 2001 became a new parameter that began to influence the politics world over including the Indo-US relations. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, rise of China and economic and environmental concerns became major factors determining the ties between the two states at the dawn of the new millennium.

While the terror attack on Pentagon and World Trade Centre created suspicions against Pakistan, China’s rapid rise became a major cause of concern for the US. India began to be looked upon by the world’s only superpower as a safety valve in South Asia. Bill Clinton’s love for India further catapulted us from the peripherals to the position of a ‘strategic partner’.

In 2000, India and the USA agreed to establish a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. And in the same year Bill Clinton became the fourth American President to tour India on a highly successful trip that literally changed equations between the top leaderships of the two countries.

The George W Bush years are argued to be the best for India, though not as much for the world at large. In 2001, Bush lifted post-Pokharan II sanctions imposed on India.

In 2002, the Indo-US High Technology Cooperation Group came into being. In 2005 an Open Skies Agreement signed between the two countries. In the same year Manmohan Singh visited America and many agreements, including the civil nuclear deal, were inked.

In the 21st century, the US has become India`s largest investment partner with American direct investment of $9 billion accounting for 9% of total foreign investment into India.

The Obama era

Initially, it was believed that due to Obama administration’s excessive emphasis on China and the promises made on Iraq & Afghanistan, relations with India would take a backseat.

The fears were supported by the fact that in February 2009 India was excluded from the list of countries that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured during her first South Asia visit. But Mrs Clinton allayed the fears when she visited India in July in the same year and called India a “key partner”. She institutionalized what is known as ‘Strategic Dialogue’ between the countries.

In the same year India strongly criticized Obama administration`s decision to limit H-1B visas and that issue continues to be a thorn for the two sides. In May 2009, Obama reiterated his anti-outsourcing views and criticized the current US tax policy for favoring companies who outsourced jobs.

The ties in his reign have been highlighted by symbolisms – Dr Manmohan Singh was the first head of the state that Obama hosted after becoming President, this is his biggest state visit to any country, he calls Singh a ‘guru’ and has spoken glowingly about Mahatma Gandhi and enviously about India’s knowledge and economic prowess. Singh’s visit of 2009 was marked by a new Knowledge Initiative, launch of US-India Financial and Economic Partnership etc.

With this visit of President Obama, touted as his largest in his presidency term till now, there is a potential of correcting the chart which seems to be going away from the path set be his recent predecessors. It is a chance for India to showcase warmth which is at once symbolic of its love for the Americans and is also an indicator that they can depend on their partner in the East. That partner may not be China if everything goes well.

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