India-US ties: From Clinton to Obama, via Bush

Barack Obama will be the sixth president of the USA to visit India since it became independent in 1947.

Kamna Arora

Barack Obama will be the sixth president of the United States of America to visit India since it became independent in 1947. Earlier, Dwight Eisenhower (1959), Richard Nixon (1969), Jimmy Carter (1978), Bill Clinton (2000), and George W Bush (2006) paid enthusiastic visits to the South Asian country.

With different policies in their bag, each leader’s visit helped shape India-US ties. Addressing a meeting in June 2010 at which some of the most powerful members of Obama administration were present, Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna said, “Since the visit of president (Bill) Clinton (to India) a decade ago, our two countries (India and the US) have been able to transform the relationship fundamentally.”

There is no doubt that India-US ties received a major boost during the tenure of George W Bush. In fact, the enthusiasm and expectations that marked Bush’s visit to India are missing in the run up to Obama’s trip. The relations between India and the US during Bush were rich not only in protocol but also in substance. It was optimism that engulfed the whole world when Barack Obama took office in January 2009. But India has not been able to achieve much during Obama’s presidency.


Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000. The then US President also visited Islamabad for a few hours before flying back to Washington, DC. Clinton’s successor, Bush, visited Pakistan as well as Afghanistan when he made a trip to India in March 2006. Breaking the trend is Obama, who has refused to travel to Pakistan after he visits India in one of his longest stay overseas in November.

It was during the Bush administration that India witnessed new heights in its ties with the US. Acting as a counterweight to Pakistan’s ally China, India very well suited the objectives of the US in South Asia.

After Bush’s visit in 2006, a Pakistani newspaper reported, “The recent visit of (US) president (George W) Bush to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan has brought home the point once again that India is likely to remain for a long time the centrepiece of the US policy towards South Asia. In contrast, Pakistan, despite its services in the war on terror, seems to have lost its earlier pre-eminent well-established position in the US foreign policy calculations.”

The US, prior to Obama’s visit, has cleared that Washington’s ties with Islamabad would not be at New Delhi’s expense.

But when it comes to slamming Pakistan for sponsoring terror against India, the US administration, be it of Bush or Obama, has been soft. The US seems to nudge Pakistan only against al Qaeda and Taliban that pose a threat to American assets. However, the US fails to take a hard stance on Pakistani groups that target India.

India is wary about weapons the US is giving to Pakistan in the name of counter-terrorism. But the Obama administration seems to have turned a blind eye to India’s concerns.


Afghanistan gained attention of the world after the 9/11 attacks – the biggest-ever terror strike across the globe. That strike brought US forces to the Central Asian nation, to take on the anti-US Taliban regime. All this happened during the Bush administration, who declared a global war on terror.

However, India – which is one of the biggest victims of terrorism – was ‘famously’ not an official partner in the US’ fight against terror. Instead, it was Pakistan – the main sponsor of terrorism in India – for its proximity to Afghanistan, geographically as well politically.

While the Bush administration was not keen about any Indian strategic role in Afghanistan, New Delhi on its own decided to take up an assertive role in rebuilding the war-torn country. And this effort of India has been widely acknowledged on the international fora, including by once-sceptic Washington.

However, this didn’t go down well with Pakistan which has time and again protested with the Bush as well as Obama administrations.

Like Bush, Obama too has acknowledged India’s role, but only as a partner in civilian reconstruction. He too has failed to outline or even acknowledge a strategic and more inclusive role for the rising South Asian giant.

Taliban and other extremist forces too have acknowledged India’s presence there, with a number of deadly attacks on Indian assets and officials, including its embassy. Official probes have conclusively proven Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI’s role in anti-India activities in Afghanistan but the successive US governments have failed to pull up Islamabad for the same.


China was, is and will always be a major factor in shaping US-India relations.

The Clinton administration had tried to project China as having a strategic role in South Asia. In 1998, Clinton’s visit to China reaffirmed Beijing’s role in the US foreign policy. The Bush administration eased the fears of India by sidelining from the policies of its preceding administration. However, the Obama administration has reverted to the policies of Clinton era. Territorially, politically, economically, or trade-wise, almost all the decisions taken by the US pay attention to the sensitivities of China.

Of late, China’s activities in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, especially in Gilgit and Balitistan have been a point of contention between New Delhi and Beijing. While India did not seek any direct interference from the US, it did expect Washington to support New Delhi on the issue. However, no such remarks have come so far and it did disappoint India, considering the fact that Obama, in his early days as US President, rumoured to have thought of appointing an envoy for Kashmir.

The US has not backed up India as expected from a “natural partner”.

Nuclear engagement

India has never been ‘officially’ accepted as a nuclear superpower, despite successfully running nuclear power plants and conducting nuke tests on three occasions. Though de facto, India has got the stamp of approval through the N-deal.

In 1998, during the Clinton regime, India conducted five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13. And immediately, international sanctions were slapped on the South Asian nation which was seeking to emerge as a global force. Leading the tirade against India’s nuclear ambitions was the Clinton administration. However, notwithstanding the sanctions and curbs on technology and knowledge transfer India successfully marched ahead on the path of development of peaceful nuclear energy.

It was this achievement of India as well recognition of the fact that as an emerging economy, India would need vast amounts of energy that forced the US administration of Bush to change the outlook towards the emerging South Asian giant. Under the Bush regime, not only the sanctions were lifted but India also got recognition as an important player in the nuclear non-proliferation efforts and secured an unprecedented civil nuclear deal with America.

While Bush ensured that the deal was signed in nick of time before he left office in 2009, Obama too has proceeded on the dotted line in contrast to his earlier staunch opposition to the agreement. Apart from expressing some reservations on the nuclear liability bill passed by the Indian Parliament, which ensures liability of the suppliers from countries like the US, the journey of the N-deal during the Obama regime has largely been smooth. But the engagement with the Obama administration has largely been a carry forward of the policies adopted during the Bush regime. And no further creative cooperation on the nuclear front has been extended between Washington and New Delhi.

In fact, Obama even introduced a resolution in the UNSC on non-proliferation, seeking non-signatories to ink the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapon states, equating India with Israel and Pakistan.

UNSC seat

India’s dream to get in the elite ring of the United Nations Security Council does not appear to be fulfilling anytime soon even during the Obama administration. The US is non-committal about support to India for a permanent seat at the UNSC. "We welcome India`s election as a non-permanent member and look forward to working with it on the issue of UNSC reforms. However, UNSC reforms are a complicated issue. The US focus is on improving the efficacy of the Council," said a US official recently after India secured a non-permanent UNSC seat.

The stance of the Obama administration is not much different from that of the Bush government or even the Clinton regime. From an ambiguous stand on India’s candidature to seeking India’s support for UNSC reforms sans a permanent seat for the South Asian nation, the successive US administrations have only been beating around the bush rather than saying a clear ‘No’ or ‘Yes’.