Fourteen Septembers ago, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee landed in New York and told the Asia Society that India and the United States of America are ‘natural allies.’ This September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unlikely to repeat that phrase even as he reiterates India’s commitment to a ‘strategic partnership’ between
two great democracies. These have been 14 interesting years
in a bilateral relationship of ups and downs.
It is not often realized that India’s first Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru made his first official trip to the US
having invested time and effort in creating a positive environment. Before embarking on his trip he implemented
policies aimed at attracting US investment into India,
rejecting criticism from the Indian Left that he was succumbing to a new imperialism having just won the struggle against an old one.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too invested in
building a good relationship, both in the mid-1960s
and then again in the 1980s, making India a Soviet
ally in between. Her successor Rajiv Gandhi went
out of his way to build bridges and Prime Minister
P V Narasimha Rao went to the extent of reversing
his decision to authorize nuclear weapon tests so as
not to displease the US.
On the US side too, various heads of government
have tried to reach out to India. However, each time
the relationship moved two steps forward, something would move it one step back. That is precisely
what has happened in the past 14 Septembers.
Mr Vajpayee’s surprising declaration that the US
was India’s ‘natural ally’ was made, I believe, in the
context of US outreach to India at the turn of the
century. President Bill Clinton’s highly successful
visit to India and his new post-Kargil formulations
on South Asia found bipartisan support in the US
with an influential Republican named Condoleezza
Rice writing an essay on ‘Promoting The National
Interest’ in the January-February 2000 issue
of Foreign Affairs.
Dr Rice suggested that the US ‘should pay closer
attention to India’s role in the regional balance (in
Asia). There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect
India with Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the
nuclear competition between the two States. But India is an
element in China’s calculation, and it should be in
America’s, too. India is not a great power yet, but it has the
potential to emerge as one.’
While India celebrated the so-called ‘de-hyphenation’
with Pakistan, neither country was prepared for handling
the likely consequences of the ‘hyphenation’ with China.
The Vajpayee government’s decision to link its nuclear
strategy to the ‘China threat,’ which was nothing more than
stating the obvious, followed by the ‘natural allies’ claim,
may have been read by US strategists as a willingness on
India’s part to become a US ‘ally’ in the containment of a
rising China. They under-estimated Indian resolve to maintain an independent foreign policy.
Worried by China’s rapid rise as an exporting and importing power in the early 2000s and China’s successful Asian
diplomacy in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, and taking the cue from Dr Rice’s 2000 essay (with Rice herself
now an important functionary in the George W Bush
administration), many in the US began ‘talking India up’, to
boost India’s morale and image.
This phase of ‘talking up’ India coincided with India’s
impressive economic performance in the period 2003-
2008 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s surprisingly
tough-minded decision to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, against all odds and staking his government’s survival.
If the 2008-2009 trans-Atlantic financial crisis had not
occurred, the India-US bilateral relationship may well
have sailed along to a new height, acquiring strategic
depth. But the course of world history changed six
Septembers ago. In September 2008 Lehmann Brothers
collapsed and took the United States down a notch or two
in global power rankings.
While the economies of both the US and Europe slowed
down, China continued to rise. If India had risen too, during Manmohan Singh’s second tenure, the relative balance
of power in Asia may not have been altered in a dramatic
manner. But the second United Progressive Alliance government let India down. India’s growth slowdown and the
paralysis of and confusion in UPA-2 widened the gap
between India and China.
The Barack Obama administration re-worked its global
relationships, in the shadow of the trans-Atlantic economic
crisis and slowdown, decided it needed to maintain good
relations with China, even going to the extent of seeking a
‘G-2’ equation with it, and whispered ‘tough love’ to India.
For its part, India too re-assessed global power equations
and decided to balance the US-China-India triangle, even
going to the extent of floating a poorly fleshed out idea
called ‘Non-Alignment 2.0.’
Much water has gone down the Potomac and Yamuna
since then. The post-Lehmann world may not yet be the
‘post-American’ world, as some Cassandras have claimed,
but it is a world of geo-economics, not just geopolitics, in
which a multiplicity of powers have acquired varying
degrees of space for autonomous action.
As I pointed out in a 2012 essay (‘Geo-economics and
Strategy’ Survival, June-July 2012) the underlying and on-going ‘shift’ of global economic activity from ‘the West to
the Rest’, certainly to Asia, was accelerated by the ‘shock’
administered by the 2008-2009 crisis. The main beneficiary of these ‘shifts and shocks’ has been China.
At the end of September, Prime Minister Modi and
President Obama meet against this larger background.
Their conversation may be constrained by the fact that
while Mr Modi is India’s rising star, Mr Obama is
America’s setting sun. Can a weakened US President
extend a confident hand of friendship to an ambitious
Indian leader who hopes to change the course of Indian
history over the next decade?
Can the US and India strike a partnership without worrying too much about what China thinks? After all, China
had no compunctions becoming America’s ally when it
sought to accelerate its own rise and ensure the decline of
Soviet power. While no power on earth is likely to be able
to stop China’s rise, it would be in India’s and America’s
interest to ensure that China plays by ‘the rules of the
game,’ especially in Asia.
Equally, it is in India’s interest that a global policy environment is put in place that would ensure that incumbent
Western powers are prevented from adopting policies that
would thwart India’s own rise.
Balancing these multiple equations and considerations
would be the defining feature of Indian foreign policy in the
next decade. Prime Minister Modi has got off to a good
start by sending out the clear message that he wants good
relations with all of India’s neighbours, near and far, and
with all major powers.
A strong, vibrant, self-confident and growing India is in
the interests of the US as well. Helping India create and
maintain a regional and global environment conducive to
India’s rise would also help the US. That I guess would be,
or ought to be, Mr Modi’s message to the US.
Sanjaya Baru, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media
advisor during his first term, is currently Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute of Strategic
Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Center for Policy
Research, New Delhi.
Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Ground Zero, New York, November 2001.
‘Each time the US-India relationship moved two steps forward, something would move it one step back.’ P E T E
Can the setting sun offer the
rising star a confident hand
Helping India create and maintain a regional and
global environment conducive to India’s rise would
help the US, says Sanjaya Baru
President John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy welcomes then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1961.