The United States has historically found it hard to have a coherent point of view on South Asia, let alone India. The good news is, such a view has been evolving and, today, is far more mature than it has ever been. “India is the indispensable partner,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says today. This is a far cry from the views of India as an economic basketcase and communist stooge that dominated the first few decades of bilateral relations.
Broadly, the first phase of US involvement with India ran the first decade of Indian independence. It was coloured almost completely by Britain and the extension of a new US aid programme. Indian security was presumed to be something London would handle and, under Harry Truman, this was complemented by the start of US grain shipments to India.
The start of the Cold War gave birth to a US tradition of being irritated with an Indian insistence on seeing the world in a manner that was different from Washington’s. The first bit of friction was the US arming of Pakistan in the mid-1950s, as part of what the US fondly believed was an anti-Communist front.
However, there was one period when the two were in agreement. It began with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1958 and lasted until 1965. During this time, Jawaharlal Nehru and three successive US presidents agreed on closer relations geopolitical, underpinned by a fear of Maoist China.
This fell apart when the US got sucked into a war with Vietnam that India rightly declined to see as being part of the China game. Instead, India found a less troublesome friend in a Soviet Union that shared its Sino-scepticism and attached less strings to relations. When the US and China then joined hands in 1971, India felt its policy had been validated. India and the US were genuinely in opposite camps at this point — a key reason for the poisonous relations between Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon.
Then began the Soviet Union’s death throes. The invasion of Afghanistan and the USSR’s economic decline led India to seek a renewal of earlier vows with the US. Things warmed during the Ronald Reagan years, but the truth is India was just above Africa on the State Department’s list of priorities. Not friends, not enemies, not much of anything.
Then came the shock years. The Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, to avoid a similar fate, India opened up its economy. India and the US struck all the right notes after that, without actually being clear what their relationship could be about. Hence the Bill Clinton visit: Pomp, ceremony, but no substance.
It was the continuing rise of India’s economy, the birth of its software industry, Indian emigration to the US and, finally, the rediscovery of its democratic polity that suddenly put US policy on the fast track. George W Bush represented the high watermark for this new relationship, partly because of his own personal interest in India. Barack Obama reflects a more pragmatic viewpoint, fuelled by the US’s current economic problems. Today, the Indo-US relationship is a light year or two away from the days of PL 480 wheat — and it can only keep heading for the stars.