Give Indo-US relations a real name now
The India-US relationship has no officially affirmed designation such as a NATO ally or a non-NATO ally. It’s a relationship with no name, in factUpdated: Jul 07, 2019 07:36 IST
United States president Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump got trolled by pundits last week for calling India a “critical ally” in a video commentary on her father’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Osaka G-20.
India is neither a US ally, nor a “critical ally”, they scolded her, remotely, and counselled her to stay in her lane.
They were right. India and the United States were never and are not allies, neither treaty allies, nor non-treaty allies. But Ivanka Trump was not the first person to use that phrase for India and won’t be the last. Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the India Caucus, urged Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in a joint letter in March 2015 to “place a special emphasis on India as a critical ally”.
They were fine, it seems, and the first daughter wasn’t. That’s not the point though. The India-US relationship has no officially affirmed designation such as a NATO ally or a non-NATO ally. It’s a relationship with no name, in fact. Leaders, academics and think-tankers from both countries have had to coin their own terms, as result, underscoring both the lack of it and, by the same token, the need for one.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, architect of the post-cold war realignment of India’s ties with the United States, set up the hunt with a landmark speech at Asia Society in New York in September 1998, his first US visit as prime minister. “India and the United States are natural allies in the quest for a better future for the world in the 21st century,” he said.
President Bill Clinton, a contemporary, agreed, and used that description to open his speech to Indian Parliament in March 2000, with a nod to Vajpayee.
Six years later, President George W Bush tweaked it by replacing “allies” with “partner”, perhaps to put his own stamp on it. “India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States because we are brothers in the cause of human liberty,” he said in a speech at Purana Qila, New Delhi in March 2006.
President Barack Obama opted for a complete overhaul. “The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger -- a reminder that it will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” Obama said, as he received Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his administration’s first state guest in November 2009. The phrase — “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” — found instant support bilaterally, and has since been used a countless times since.
But the quest for a defining name continued. Canvassing Indian-Americans ahead of the 2016 elections, Donald Trump promised India and the United States will be “best friends” with him in the White House. Setting up Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit recently, the state department coined a new one, scrabbling old definitions — “natural strategic partners”. And, in a Bollywood-ish swoon, it said ties between the two countries were “unbreakable”.
Ashley Tellis, the dean of US experts on ties with India, acknowledged the impossible situation Ivanka Trump was in. ”The critics are making a mountain out of a molehill!. The terms will be elusive because there are few templates to define the US-India relationship,” he wrote in an email.
It’s time for the relationship to get a name, any name.