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Indian PM visits: Then and Now

Aparna Pande

In 1950 India’s First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the United States. The American media and the Truman administration went all out to welcome Premier Nehru. This week India’s 17th Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is on a state visit to the United States. The Obama administration, Washington’s policy-making elite and the media are once again celebrating this occasion. It is time to step back and look at the changed Indo-U.S. relationship, then and now.

In 1950 India was a 400 million strong country, independent for only 3 years, with a proud history and civilization but with very little resources. According to Premier Nehru, the architect of India’s foreign policy, the independence of India signaled the “rise of Asia.” As a secular democratic country keen to join the free world, the Indian leadership was keen to build ties with the United States. 

The United States under President Roosevelt had been very supportive of the Indian independence movement and subtle pressure had been repeatedly placed on the British government to allow India first dominion status and then complete independence. When partition took place many American officials were disappointed as for them a united India would have been able to make a much greater contribution to the world. When Prime Minister Nehru came to United States on his first trip there were high expectations from the American side.

However, Nehru was reluctant to involve India too deeply in the preoccupying issue of the day the cold war. This along with other issues over time led to a disenchantment between the American and Indian leaderships. Since South Asia was never high on the American security agenda except for short periods of time, there was very little incentive to change the status quo. According to political scientist Myron Weiner, South Asia occupied a low priority because “it has no resources vital to the American economy,” it is “not a region with substantial American private investment,” “its geopolitical position raises no fundamental problems for American security,” “has no deep cultural or historical ties with the United States” and “no significant segment of the American population originates or had an enduring association with the region.”

Today, the reality is different. India is a 1.1 billion strong country with the third largest armed forces, the fifth largest economy in the world, and nuclear weapons. India is located in a part of the world which is now strategically important for American foreign policy. India is the largest democracy in the world and one of the few long-lasting democracies in South and South East Asia.

Compared to the very weak economic ties in the 1950s-1960s today the United States is India’s top trading partner with over $61 billion in bilateral trade. Over the last decade India has become the leading outsourcing destination for most American companies with two in five of America’s Fortune 500 companies outsourcing their software to India. U.S. investment in India in 1950s-1960s was mainly in the form of aid and loans, today U.S. is the largest foreign portfolio investor and there is over $16 billion of American foreign direct investment in India.

The India-US civilian nuclear deal of 2005 an agreement on which is to be signed in Washington this week will open up a $150 billion market in power plants. Two potential sites for the building of nuclear power plants have already been demarcated for American companies.

India plans on modernizing its military by spending $100 billion in the next ten years and many American companies are contenders for various contracts. Today American arms sales to India average $3.5 billion annually. For the last couple of years India and United States have even held annual joint military exercises.

In 1950s there was a very small Indian-American community, today there is a vibrant community of over 2.5 million. A few hundred Indian students came to study in the United States during the 1950s, today 100,000 Indian students come annually to study.

A report in the American media today reflects the reverse of Weiner’s observation of 1970: “On every big global issue today from the economy to climate change to fighting terrorism and curbing nuclear proliferation Washington needs New Delhi’s cooperation.”

This change in five decades is what led President Obama to invited Premier Singh as his first state guest in the White House.

At the welcoming ceremony President Obama stated, “Mr. Prime Minister, yours is the first official state visit of my presidency.  And it is fitting that you and India be so recognized. But above all, your visit at this pivotal moment in history speaks to the opportunity before us to build the relationship between our nations born in the last century into one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. This is the India that America welcomes today a leader in Asia and around the world.”

Prime Minister Singh in turn pointed out that the United States and India were separated by distance but bound by common values. “Over the years, we have built upon these values and created a partnership that is based upon both principle and pragmatism. Our relations have been transformed, and today they encompass cooperation in all areas of human activity This is a moment of great opportunity in our relationship. India and the United States can, and must, work together to harness the immense potential of our talented and enterprising people, and support each other’s growth and prosperity. We should cooperate in addressing global challenges of combating terrorism, making our environment cleaner and moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons.”

This bonhomie does not mean that there are no differences between U.S. and India anymore. These range from India’s relations with Pakistan, Iran’s nuclear weapons and climate change.

India has always seen American influence in South Asia as an attempt to “shore up” Pakistan in its consistent struggle to “seek equality” with India. Indian policy makers also believe that the U.S. has failed to curb Islamabad’s backing of anti-India extremists based in Pakistan mainly because Pakistan has often been a ‘frontline’ ally for the Americans, earlier during the cold war and now in the war against terrorism.

India and Iran share very old and warm ties. Iran is one of India’s leading suppliers of oil and natural gas and the Indian government is keen to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Though not very comfortable at the prospect of another nuclear-armed power in the region, India is reluctant to support sanctions against Iran, for diplomatic, economic and historical reasons. India is also concerned about the impact of such sanctions on its Muslim population.

On the issue of climate change the Obama administration would like India (and China)- the leading emitters of greenhouse gases in the world to accept limits on their carbon emissions. The Indian argument is that it is still a developing country and developed countries who contributed to the present problem ought to assume the lion’s share of the burden.

Though India has moved away from a strict non-aligned policy and from the 1990s has built deep economic, diplomatic, technological and cultural ties with the United States the Nehruvian legacy is still visible in what former American diplomat and analyst Teresita Shaffer refers to as ‘strategic autonomy.’ India has the capability and the desire to be a global power and an ally of the United States. However, New Delhi’s interests may not always be aligned with Washington’s and that is something both sides will have to bear in mind, to agree to often disagree and still remain friends.

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