This week, Donald Trump made his maiden visit to India as the US President. He became the seventh US President to visit India – after Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. And with Trump's India visit, came the usual expectations of strategic deals, trade pacts and a general uptick in ties.
“A new chapter in US-India relations.” This is how many media platforms described the Namaste Trump event hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium. Whether Trump's India visit signifies a new chapter or not is a matter of debate; but the fact that the relationship between the two countries has come a long way is undeniable.
The argument that the world’s two largest democracies are “natural allies” is a popular one these days.
However, in the years following Independence, this was not the case. Those were the years of the Cold War, and Washington was deeply suspicious of New Delhi’s proximity to the Soviet Union. Moscow provided economic and military assistance to India, and was also the broker in the talks that ended the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. And India being one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, was wary of open alliance with either power for fear of being drawn into the escalating Cold War.
The US was instead more supportive of Pakistan, which it used as an intermediary to conduct secret talks with Mao’s China. This culminated in Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.
The 1970s decade saw a further deterioration of relations between India and the US. Washington sided with Pakistan during the 1971 War. And India’s Smiling Buddha nuclear test in 1974 sparked further estrangement between the two democracies.
A temporary thaw in distrust began in the 1980s with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s meeting with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George HW Bush’s visit to New Delhi. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union changed geopolitical dynamics. Furthermore, the 1991 economic reforms further integrated India with the global economy. But hopes for closer ties dimmed towards the end of the century when the 1998 nuclear tests led to the US imposing sanctions.
With the new century, both countries turned a new leaf. Bill Clinton’s visit marked the first Presidential visit in two decades. In the next few years, both countries engaged in a strategic detente. This involved more trade, defence pacts, nuclear deals and foreign investment.
The fact that we have come from a time when the White House derided the Indian Prime Minister with derogatory abuses in private chats to a time when both countries are hailed as “natural allies” is truly remarkable. Today’s India-US partnership is the result of decades of alliance-building. And while the fact that both our countries are major democracies has a lot to do with our relationship, the effect of geopolitical realities cannot be divorced from consideration. Just as the Cold War dictated India-US relations in the 20th century, other factors have influenced ties in this century. Chief among these is probably the growing clout of China, with whom neither India nor the US has rosy ties.
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