This week, Secretary of State John Kerry visited India to attend the Fifth India-US Strategic Dialogue. The impetus behind the visit was clearly stated in the Joint Statement – “The two sides recognized that the decisive mandate provided by the Indian people to their new Government provided a unique opportunity to re-energize this relationship.” The goal was stated unambiguously by Secretary Kerry “US & India can and will be indispensable partners of the 21st century“.
The timing of the visit was clearly driven by the recent Indian election. As Evan Feigenbaum wrote this week:
- “First, the NDA government has been in office for nearly two months. Modi has met Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, among others, so it is high time for cabinet-level US engagement. Second, as Kerry himself argued in a speech this week, relations with strategically important countries cannot be shunted to the sidelines by crises.”
But history rhymes, especially in US-India relations. The sixth year of the US Presidential Cycle seems to be pivotal to the US-India relationship. Think back to 1998, the sixth year of President Clinton’s term, & to 2006, the sixth year of President Bush’s term. These two years proved transformational to the Indo-US relationship. This year is also the sixth year of President Obama’s term and, presto, we have a serious decision to raise US-India relationship to a higher level.
1. President Clinton & India – 1998
India was not on top of the agenda of President Clinton, writes Rudra Chaudhuri in his book, “Forged In Crisis“. In fact, as we recall, President Clinton had remarked that India’s democracy created problems for America while Pakistan was much easier to deal with. Then came India’s nuclear tests in May 1998 and President Clinton was outraged. As Chaudhuri writes,
- “… the US imposed economic and military sanctions on India. Other than targeting food aid and humanitarian initiatives, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on everything from defense sales to export licenses. It opposed IMF and World Banl loans, and conducted a sweeping review of all scientific exchange programmes, including recalling and cancelling visas issued to Indian scientists in the US.”
.But, according to Joseph Ralston, then Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nuclear tests “did more to bring our two nations together than anything else“. As Chaudhuri adds,
- Talbott likewise concluded that one of the expected consequences of the tests was that the US would “pay them [India] serious, sustained, and respectful attention of a kind the Indians felt they had never received before“”.
Then began the backchannel dialogue between Strobe Talbott & Jaswant Singh. Chaudhuri reports,
- “The first meeting took place on 12 June 1998, a month after the tests. Singh and Talbott met fourteen times in ten locations in seven different countries.”
This backchannel paid handsome dividends in the 1999 military infiltration by NPakistan into India’s Kashmir. As Chaudhuri writes, “… for the first time in history a US president unequivocally took India’s side in an India-Pakistan conflict“. President Clinton’s unambiguous and uncomplicated position on the war had led, as Chaudhuri quotes Walter Anderson, “to an immediate change of perception in India“.
Less than a year later, President Clinton visited India, the first US president to do so since Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Prime Minister Vajpayee stated that the visit “marks the beginning of a new voyage in the new century by two countries which have all the potential to become natural allies“.
2. President Bush & India – 2006
The Bush presidency took US-India relationship to a new level that was beyond what the Indian establishment could have imagined in 2000. The difference between Bush and Clinton is best explained by Chaudhuri,
- “Clinton’s unbending resolve for non-proliferation regimes could at best normalize the relationship but to take it no further. … From the start the Bush White House approached India as a ‘part of the solution to non-proliferation’, as Tellis notes, rather than the problem.”
And it was the Bush White House, especially Condoleezza Rice, who drove this transformation, not the State Department:
- “Many in the State Department were simply ‘cut out of the loop’. … While the “State department continued to press the case for ‘hyphenation’ between India & Pakistan”, the Bush team adopted an entirely different approach. it was given the inelegant title of ‘de-hyphenation‘.”
- “President Bush was absolutely convinced by the imperatives underlying both de-hyphenation and the need for a deal“.
The efforts that began in 2000 took six years to deliver results. And the result was the United States and India: Strategic Partnership in 2006. President Bush declared then:
- “We have an ambitious agenda with India. Our agenda is practical. It builds on a relationship that has never been better. India is a global leader, as well as a good friend. … My trip will remind everybody about the strengthening of an important strategic partnership. We’ll work together in practical ways to provide a hopeful future for citizens in both our nations.”
(President Bush in India in 2006)
This led to the final ratification of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in the fall of 2008, a concrete realization of the US-India Strategic Partnership envisioned and implemented by President Bush.
3. President Obama & India – 2014
President Obama came to power with a completely different mindset. And his cherished goals were in direct and fundamental conflict with India’s strategic imperatives. This simple and straightforward reality was discussed in our April 2010 article titled Obama’s India Problem or India’s Obama Problem? Predictably, the US-India relationship lost steam and got sidelined.
This malaise in US-India relations reminds us of the 1992-1997 period of the Clinton Administration, a period in which India was viewed as an irritant while NPakistan was viewed as potentially helpful & worthy of fair treatment. The presence of Secretary Hillary Clinton and her efforts for a US pivot to Asia kept India on Obama’s radar. Yet, India was perceived as a problem or even an enemy by the NeoLibs who were the backbone of the Obama presidency.
Then the Obama Administration got a shock, a shock that rivaled the impact of the 1998 nuclear tests on the Clinton Administration. Narendra Modi, the man vilified by the NeoLibs, won a sweeping mandate from the Indian people in May 2014. Being against a regional Chief Minister was one thing but being vitriolically against the Indian Prime Minister elected with a thumping majority was unthinkable. And Shri Modi is a proven administrator capable of making India both economically and militarily strong.
And so, just like the Clinton Administration did in 1998, the Obama Administration began the process of recalibrating its posture and reached out to the Modi Administration. Secretary Kerry’s visit to India was an important step in the process. The pivotal step would be the visit to US of Prime Minister Modi and his meeting with President Obama.
In a sense, the US-India relationship has nowhere to go but up from its current level. We trust the Obama-Modi meeting does indeed take it to the next level. And if it does, then perhaps we can see a triumphant visit of President Obama to India, a visit that exceeds the “Clinton mania” that engulfed India in 2000.
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