This past December, the US and India celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first visit of a US President to India. That President was Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike).
Since then, five other Presidents have come to India. Their visits and they have all had an impact on the manner in which US-India relations have evolved.
In my opinion, there have been three stages for US-India relations to date:
§1947-1990: Fledgling Relationship
§1991-2016: Strengthening Relationship
§2017-2020: Functional Relationship
I believe the future stage will be a Strategic Partnership and it will start sometime in the period between 2021 and 2030.
The Fledgling Relationship began with President Eisenhower’s India visit in 1959. President Eisenhower’s five-day visit was memorable and monumental. Ike addressed the Indian Parliament where his remarks were unexpectedly well received and embraced. More than a million people participated in a public rally for him. When he departed, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that the President leaves India with a “piece of our heart”.
Eisenhower’s trip kicked off this relationship. After it, there was emerging cooperation in areas such as higher education and agriculture. But things did not progress well politically into the ’70s even though President Richard Nixon visited India in July of 1969 and President Jimmy Carter came to India nine years later in January 1978.
Nixon spent less than one day in India. It is reported that his trip was intended to try to reduce the tensions and distrust between him and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It did not. When Nixon sided with Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh War, there was no basis for a rapprochement.
President Jimmy Carter came to India for three days after Prime Minister Gandhi was replaced by Prime Minister Morarji Desai in the 1977 elections. He had several meetings and addressed India’s Parliament. His trip early in Desai’s administration could have solidified the relationship.
But, the “cold and blunt message” that Carter delivered on India’s detonation of nuclear bombs and a call to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty fell on deaf ears and cooled things off. After the turbulent ’70s, relations between India and the US were very quiet throughout the ’80s.
India-US relations began to unthaw in the early ’90s. That was for economic rather than political reasons. Because of its acute financial crisis, the Indian economy was liberalized in 1991.
This caused American businesses to flock to India and to begin to use their economic, social and political clout to improve U.S. India relations and led to the U.S. becoming India’s largest trading partner. Three consecutive U.S. Presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama heard those messages and traveled to India.
President Clinton made a five-day visit with his daughter Chelsea in March 2000. This visit came after the Indian nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998 and sanctions imposed by the US. It resulted in removing those sanctions and reestablished a somewhat flagging relationship between what was referred to as two “estranged democracies”.
While he was in office, George W. Bush maintained the upward trajectory of the relationship. Most notably, he came to India for two-and-a-half days with his wife, Laura, in March of 2006 during which he signed the landmark US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.
President Barack Obama made two trips to India — one in his first term and one in his second — that took US-India relations to the next level. The first visit was for three days in November 2010. Obama addressed Parliament during that visit and met with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The second three-day visit was in January 2015 primarily to participate in the Indian Republic Day Celebration with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Obama visits were especially impactful in terms of strengthening economic ties and public statements regarding the nature of the relationship between India and the US. At various points leading up to, during, and after the visits, President Obama referred to that relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.
President Donald Trump took Office on January 20, 2017. He has not visited India but has said that he would “some time”.
There were high hopes from some that US-India relations would continue to strengthen under his presidency. In point of fact, they have not. They have become primarily functional.
In my opinion, that is the best that can be expected with and from this President. Partnership, cooperation, and collaboration are not words that are in his vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.
Nonetheless, India and the US will have a true strategic partnership in the future.
That strategic partnership will deliver on the vision set out by President Eisenhower. Speaking to India’s Parliament in 1959, Ike stated that the welfare of India and the US were linked together.
The potential that he envisioned for an alliance between India and the US is being realized. There is still quite a way to go to achieve it fully and there are no guarantees because the future is promised to no one.
Either country could lose its course and make the partnership less feasible if it abandons its commitment to a unifying and uplifting democracy. India and the US must also discover how to work closely together in order to earn the strategic partnership label and become “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.
The journey has begun. Time and tenacity will determine how and where it will end.
(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, thought and civic leader based in Washington DC)