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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 42, New Delhi, October 2, 2021

Indo - US relations in perspective | P S Jayaramu

Friday 1 October 2021


by P S Jayaramu *

(27th September, 2021)

The recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States is an opportunity to take a look at the historical development of the bilateral relations between the world’s two oldest and largest democracies. Though there are various aspects to the bilateral relations like trade and commerce, science and technology and culture and education-related aspects, my focus is with reference to the politico-strategic issues.

When Jawaharlal Nehru visited United States for the first time as Prime Minister in October 1949, the then US President Harry Truman appealed to him to join the US in its fight against Soviet Communism. This was part of the US strategy of a joint front of democracies to contain the expansion of Communism and Soviet Power. It is said that President Truman even offered to make India a permanent member of the UN Security Council if it joined the American alliance system. One does not know if the American leadership was serious about it and whether the British and the French would have endorsed the so-called grand offer. But, in any case, Nehru rejected the ‘offer’ and suggested the inclusion of Communist China which had emerged out of a revolution. There were no meeting of minds and the idea got into the realm of history.

It is well-known that in South Asia, India was America’s first choice to be taken into a military alliance-type relationship in the early fifties and when India spurned the idea, the US turned to Pakistan and signed the military assistance programme in 1954 with the ostensible objective of fighting Soviet Communism’s advance into the region. India had put herself on the path of Non-alignment and was not keen to be part of the western alliance system. With the US siding with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in the United Nations, India chose to establish a special relationship with the Soviet Union, as part of its non-aligned foreign policy. As for Indo-US ties, bilateral relations flowered in the economic and other fields while the politico-strategic relations were on a strained path during the 1950s and 1960s. The 1970s saw a deterioration in bilateral ties, thanks to Nixon’s role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war over the liberation of Bangladesh. It only got aggravated with India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974. The 1980s saw no significant improvement in bilateral political relations with India adopting a soft line on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. However, relations in the fields of education and science and technology got a boost when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister.

Indo-US relations in the economic, political and strategic fields started witnessing an upward trend only after the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of Soviet Union coincided with the dawn of the Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation era in world politics. With the downgrading of the politico-strategic issues and the primacy accorded to economic-trade issues in foreign policy considerations in the post-cold war era, Indo-US relations were poised for significant improvement. The Indian decision under Vajpayee to become a nuclear weapon state in1998, however, led to US sanctions. The same got lifted, thanks to the skillful diplomatic negotiations carried out by Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot. In any case, with the signing of the Nuclear Deal with the US by the UPA regime in 2005, the pariah status of India got removed clearing the way for an active relationship with the US.

The rise of China in a big way under the leadership of Xi Jinping in the last few years, with widespread expansion of its economic interests and investment in the Asia-Pacific region with clear intentions of becoming a hegemonic power globally, led to a reassessment of its foreign policy by the United States with special emphasis on military linkages with other countries. President Biden has given a new impetus to it following his much-debated quick withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Biden is keen on taking on China in the Asia-Pacific region. It is in this perspective that the US has created the QUAD and has roped in India as a member.

As for the QUAD, there is no doubt that India too needs an architecture to protect itself and if possible participate in the contain China project of the US. But, as is clear from hindsight, India has been historically reluctant to get into any military alliance with the US, though America seems to be keen on such an arrangement. The only treaty which India signed with a defence clause to it was the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971.That was in the context of a war looming large with Pakistan with possibilities of Nixon’s America backing Pakistan. Otherwise, India has been, as a matter of principle and equally with the goal of retaining its autonomy in foreign policy decision-making, opposed to signing military treaties with external powers. The same strategy has continued to operate under the Modi regime too, thanks to the deft articulation of India’s nuanced positions by foreign minister Dr.Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Going by the manner in which Prime Minister Modi’s recent US visit went by, it appears that Indian diplomacy has succeeded in de-emphasing the military component of QUAD. President Biden too seems to have been accommodative on this score. So much so, at the first in-person QUAD summit, both Prime Minister Modi and President Biden decided to take some initiatives in the area of climate change, cyber security and to step up vaccine production and distribution to combat the continuing danger from covid-19 to the developing world. Both leaders were clear about the Group’s commitment to strengthen the forces of democracy and scientific and technological cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. While India needs to contain China’s growing influence in the area, it must retain a certain measure of autonomy in handling the Chinese challenge, keeping in mind its own internal requirements and also possibilities of a thaw in America’s economic and trade postures towards China. In any case, America has set up AUKUS, a security alliance, involving itself, the UK and Australia to deal with the military challenges from China.

Finally, it is worth adding that Prime Minister Modi tries to bring in a personal element to the relations with his counterparts across the globe. He overdid it with Donald Trump , even indirectly favouring his re-election as President of America at the ‘Howdy Mody’ extravaganza in September 2019. He seems to have established a rapport with President Biden too, going by the support he got from the US Administration in dealing with the consequences of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the promises Biden has made for an improvement of the bilateral ties. In their summit meeting, Biden acknowledged the contribution of four million Indian-Americans in making America stronger. He has assured American help in vaccine production in India.

At the QUAD summit, in keeping with the sentiments to project the Group as a unique experiment for the development of the Indo-Pacific, Modi described the grouping as a force for ‘public good’. He also had a one to one meeting with the US Vice President Kamala Harris, where she spoke a bit of her mind on democracy. Her statement was, however, carefully crafted as she talked about the need for both countries striving to protect democracy internally. We don’t know the details of their one to one conversation. Modi on his part, referred to India and America being natural allies, borrowing a phrase from Vajpayee, with similar values and geopolitical interests. Notwithstanding his statements in his meeting with Kamala Harris and his speech at the UNGA where he described India as the mother of democracies, it is high time Modi introspects about the causes for the downward swing in his government’s image in the western world and initiate corrective measures for creating a positive environment for the operation of liberal democracy at home.

* (Author: Dr.P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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