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What changed in the India-U.S. relationship and where is it headed?
On June 23, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress—and not for the first time: he’d done so once before, in 2016. His repeat performance is noteworthy. In the past 16 years, only one other leader has been granted the honor of speaking to Congress twice: Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, a country whose ties with the United States are so strong that it’s referred to routinely as an ally, even though it’s technically not one. Most recently, President Biden traveled to New Delhi to attend the September 9-10 G-20 summit that Modi hosted. Biden’s trip may not have been intended solely to elevate Modi’s international standing, but it had that effect nevertheless. What makes Washington’s courtship of Modi remarkable, though, is that for nearly a decade before being elected prime minister of India in 2014 he was banned from even entering the United States.
Modi, then and now
Washington’s blacklisting of Modi followed a weeks-long frenzy of violence against Muslims in India’s northwestern state of Gujarat, of which he was Chief Minister between 2002 and 2014. The bloodletting erupted in late February 2002 after Muslims set fire to a train carriage containing Hindu pilgrims who were returning from Ayodhya, a town in the state of Uttar Pradesh celebrated as the birthplace of the deity Rama. By then, Ayodhya had already become the venue for rallies demanding the razing of a local mosque to make way for the construction of a Hindu temple. The death of 58 people in the train fire sparked weeks of violence that killed as 1,000 Muslims, and likely many more. The debate over whether Modi was legally culpable, morally responsible, or just plain incompetent for not ordering forceful steps to stop the atrocities continues, especially in India. What’s beyond doubt is that the police were at the very least languid and that right-wing Hindu groups in sync with the Hindu nationalist ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi’s party, praised the attacks. An inquiry ordered by India’s Supreme Court absolved Modi of wrongdoing and the local police of negligence; but the American government decided that he should be punished. Hence the visa ban.
That was then. Since becoming prime minister, Modi has had a makeover in Washington’s corridors of power. President Obama invited him to visit in June 2016, the year of his first address to Congress and first trip to the U.S. as prime minister. Donald Trump gushed over Modi, who reciprocated. The prime minister arranged for a mega-crowd to cheer Trump during an outdoor speech he gave while visiting India in February 2016. Trump heaped praise on Modi, never mind that the president’s visit coincided with attacks on Muslim protestors on New Delhi’s streets by Hindu nationalist mobs. The demonstrations were sparked by a new law offering a fast-track to citizenship for refugees from Muslim-majority countries who arrived in India before 2014—providing they were non-Muslims. The Biden administration has continued the trend of turning the one-time pariah into a partner.
Cold War frostiness
Dramatic though the turnaround in Washington’s attitude toward Modi has been, it’s part of a transformation in the relationship between India and the United States that has been underway for 30 years. The magnitude of the change becomes clear if one compares the current amity between New Delhi and Washington with their Cold War relationship.
Back then, India’s strongest security-related ties were with the Soviet Union, America’s arch enemy. Virtually all of the weapons India bought were Soviet-made or produced at home under licensing agreements with Moscow. Projects built with Soviet loans and technical help were prominent in the state-run industrial sector. Though India’s economy was thoroughly capitalist, many in India’s officialdom and intelligentsia admired the Soviet model of economic development, which had rapidly industrialized a largely agrarian society. And because the Soviet Union, unlike Britain, France, and other European countries, had not presided over an overseas empire, in the eyes of Indian nationalists and leftists it was untainted by the original sin of colonialism.
While Moscow applauded India’s non-aligned foreign policy and role as one of the leaders of the non-alignment movement, the United States saw it as camouflage for India’s pro-Soviet sympathies. This was particularly true of President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, or Henry Kissinger, his counterpart under President Nixon. And neither of their bosses had much use for India. Truman labeled Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a “commie”; Nixon called Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who succeeded his short-lived successor Lal Bahadur Shastri, “a bitch” and Indians “bastards.”
During the December 1971 India-Pakistan war Nixon sent a naval task force led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to buck up Pakistan, which was then brokering Kissinger’s secret mission to China. Earlier that year, India signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union—to Nixon and Kissinger, barely a step short of an alliance. There were periods of friendship between India and the U.S., notably during JFK’s presidency. Kennedy liked India, as did his two ambassadors, Chester Bowles and John Kenneth Galbraith, both much beloved by Indians. More tangibly, JFK sent military aid to India after China attacked it in 1962 and also warned Pakistan to stay clear.
Still, for much of the Cold War, India and the U.S. were at odds, in part because of America’s arming of Pakistan and India’s criticism of Washington’s war in Vietnam. More broadly, India, unlike Pakistan, wanted no part in the American strategy of “containment,” which involved ringfencing the Soviet Union’s perimeter with alliances, and didn’t hesitate to make that known.
Post-Cold War: A new chapter
Once the Cold War ended, India and the United States started putting their relationship on an entirely new footing, and the celebration of Modi in Washington is the culmination of a long evolution.
There has been unprecedented cooperation in the realm of national security. It started in 1992, when India and the United States, joined later by Japan and then Australia, initiated what would become the annual “Malabar” naval exercises in the Asia-Pacific. As part of its commitment to diversifying its traditionally Moscow-centered weapons imports, India also began turning to Europe and the United States. Though Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, Moscow’s Cold war monopoly has ended, and that has worked to Washington’s advantage. As recently as 20 years ago, the United States didn’t sell many weapons to India and during the Cold War barely any. But in 2008 U.S. arms sales to India reached $8 billion and five years later, $13 billion. By contrast, Russia’s share of the Indian arms market has plunged from nearly two-thirds just eight years ago to around 45% today. The U.S., meanwhile, has carved out an 11% share and now ranks third, behind France. American armament manufacturers are eyeing the Indian market eagerly and stand to make a killing: India was the world’s largest arms importer between 2018 and 2022 and will almost certainly buy even more American weaponry in years to come. In another big change, India joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known commonly as the Quad) along with Japan, Australia, and the United States in 2007. (The Quad is not a military alliance so the decision can be reconciled with India’s non-aligned foreign policy, which continues under the BJP.)
What explains the change?
India and the U.S. aren’t formal allies—they haven’t signed a treaty obligating them to defend one another from an armed attack, and won’t—but they have certainly been cooperating on the security front in ways and at a pace that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War. What accounts for it?
A narrative common within the American foreign policy establishment has it that the United States leads an alliance of democracies engaged in an epic struggle against autocracies of various sorts, notably Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. With some exceptions, a prominent one being the 1975-1977 “Emergency” during which when the embattled Indira Gandhi suspended fundamental freedoms, India’s democracy has remained intact since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. The Indian army has stayed out of politics, power changes hands following elections, civil society remains vibrant, the press eclectic and free.
Perhaps, then, what draws the United States and India together is their commitment to liberal democratic institutions and values. But that explanation, while plausible, isn’t convincing. For one thing, fealty to democratic principles didn’t create an alignment between the two countries during the Cold War; quite the opposite; for much of that period the relationship was marked by mutual suspicious and prickliness; and America’s partner of choice in South Asia during that era was Pakistan, which experienced two coups followed by extended periods of military rule. For another, though Washington habitually touts human rights and democracy as the guiding lights of its foreign policy, it has a long history of supporting undemocratic, even downright repressive, regimes: for example, the military dictatorships in Greece, Turkey, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Pakistan during the Cold War and authoritarian regimes such as Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s Egypt and the Saudi monarchy today.
Besides, the current acceleration in Washington’s cooperation with India is occurring when Indian democracy faces unprecedented pressure—because of Modi’s policies. Though India is a far cry from a dictatorship—Modi governs because he won an election twice and will have to win again in 2024 to remain in office—democracy and basic freedoms are in a bad way, and with no prospect for improvement Modi’s BJP-led government has eroded the independence of India’s Supreme Court. India’s media has much less freedom nowadays and many of the biggest platforms are owned by wealthy family businesses that are close to the government and eager to retain its goodwill. Journalists critical of Modi face harassment and intimidation. Social media companies operate under more restrictive regulations and have also been strong-armed into blocking the accounts of Modi’s critics.
India’s religious minorities, above all Muslims but also Christians, face scapegoating, persecution, and violence. Instead of condemning these discriminatory acts, government officials, central and regional BJP leaders, enable it through their own inflammatory rhetoric, including Islamophobic tropes about “love jihad,” supposed large-scale forced conversions of Hindu women by their Muslim husbands. This accords with the BJP’s theme of portraying the various Muslim dynasties that ruled India, starting in the 13th century (the Mughals being the best-known), as invaders and oppressors of Hindus so as to depict present-day Indian Muslims as outsiders.
Though Modi has been careful not to take center stage in fanning the anti-Muslim invective, he doesn’t condemn it. Little wonder: he has been a lifelong member of the BJP’s underlying ideological movement, the militant Hindu nationalist movement the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (National Volunteer Society), which, inspired by fascist ideology, was founded in 1925. Among the trademark tropes of the RSS is Hindutva, which equates being authentically Indian with being a Hindu—a stark departure from India’s longtime commitment to citizenship based on secularism and pluralism.
Whatever draws American officials to Modi’s India, then, it can’t be a shared commitment to democratic values. The courtship of Modi demonstrates yet again that when democratic values and pragmatic interests pull in opposite directions, American leaders have often privileged the latter. Currently, the most important of the pragmatic interests underlying Washington’s stepped up cooperation with India is countering China, which, despite its current economic problems, is considered the most powerful challenger to U.S. international primacy. In India, China is, hands down, viewed as the country’s biggest national security threat: the two countries fought a war—one in which India suffered a humiliating loss—in 1962, and there have been several deadly skirmishes along the 3,488-km border, most recently in December 2022.
The outlook: Four likely trends
More than anything else, therefore, it’s the shared apprehension toward China, not democratic values, that explains the increasing alignment between Washington and New Delhi, and if China’s power continues to grow, so will the convergence between India and the United States, which will feature four characteristics.
First, despite their concerns about China, India and the United States will not form a military alliance. Instead, they will increase their defense ties and intelligence sharing—with Beijing in mind but without committing to assist one another in the event of a war with China. The United States will not want to add to its substantial military commitments in Europe and the Asia-Pacific by undertaking to help India fight a land war against China; and India neither expects nor seeks any such commitment from the U.S. New Delhi will stick to its policy on non-alignment while buying more American weapons and seeking more U.S. economic investment and technology transfers to increase its national power so as to increase its capacity to deter a Chinese attack and, failing that, to resist it.
Second, India will not walk away from its decades-long security cooperation with Russia, in part because its reliance on Russian weapons and parts will continue even as arms purchases from Russia decline. Moreover, India will continue to make major purchases of Russian arms, as witness the $5.4 billion deal it signed to acquire the S-400, Russia’s most advanced air defense system. More generally, it would make little sense for India to deny itself the benefits of a decades-long partnership, let alone alienate Moscow, especially at a time when Russia and China are increasing their cooperation across the board.
Third, the United States may ideally prefer that India distance itself from Russia, but Washington’s strategic cooperation with India will proceed in spite of New Delhi’s close continuing strong ties with Moscow. This is clear from what has already happened. The U.S. has not curtailed its security cooperation with India because of the latter’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to join the U.S. and its allies in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and its increased imports of Russia oil. Similarly, after India signed the S-400 deal with Russia, the U.S. did not invoke CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, adopted in 2017) and impose sanctions on it. Instead, the Biden administration and Congress seem inclined to grant India a waiver, and in July 2022 the House of Representatives passed legislation urging Biden to do just that.
Fourth, Washington's deepening security ties with New Delhi are part of its larger strategy for countering China in the Asia-Pacific, but India will be unable to contribute much to that endeavor, beyond military exercises, defense-related meetings and consultations, and participation in regional forums like the Quad. The principal threat India faces from China is a land attack from the north, not from the sea, and certainly not in the East China Sea and South China Sea, the focal points of the American effort to contain China by creating maritime coalitions. India’s capacity to project naval and air forces into areas off China’s coast and to sustain them there during hostilities will remain marginal at best. And given the nature of the threat India faces from China, it would make little sense for New Delhi to devote substantial resources in order to help beef up an anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific. Although India will continue to increase its security cooperation with Japan, Vietnam, and Australia, which are also leery of China, it will lack the heft to shift East Asia’s military balance of power against China to any substantial degree. Those in the United States who see India as critical to the strategy of countering China’s ambitions in East Asia are therefore likely to be disappointed.