India – USA relations at a Cusp: Will they seize the moment?

~ By Shakti Sinha

Most political commentators, on the eve of and immediately after Narendra Modi’s assumption of office as Prime Minister were convinced that India-US ties would suffer. The key assumption was that the US’ denial of visa to Mr Modi in 2005, and refusal to engage with him almost till the last, would weigh heavily on him. This view was not limited to Indians only but quite widespread globally. For example, on the eve of Modi’s imminent victory, the hard-line Chinese Communist party outlet Global Times prophesised that the West, which had got used to a weak central government in India, was ‘afraid that a strongman like Vladimir Putin will make India really strong and build the country into a challenger to the West economically and politically.’ Two years down the road as Modi travels to the US for what would be the last State Visit of the Obama presidency, critics attack Modi as abandoning India’s non-alignment and ‘strategic autonomy’ and of becoming a junior partner in efforts to confront China. If the earlier fears, and hopes, of Indo-US relations nose-diving were completely misplaced, the criticism of India becoming anybody’s junior partner are equally off the mark.

A close study of how relations between India and the USA, what Denis Kux in the context of the Cold War termed ‘estranged democracies’ have lately evolved would explain why commentators and critics are so often caught flat-footed. A mature country’s policies are not driven by emotions or personal idiosyncrasies – it would be extremely absurd that a staunch believer in India’s destiny as Modi is would let the treatment, however unfair, given to him personally dictate how he as the Prime Minister of a potential super-power would interact with the US. What a country perceives its interests to be guides its policies and behaviour. Modi’s entire campaign was about accelerating India’s national development and harnessing the potential of the Indian people so that the country would take its rightful place on the global high table. The second point to note is that interests do change with time, and external developments also impact on policy formulation. It is this placing of a country’s interests in a changing external environment that determines how a country responds to a given situation.

Since the 1980s, India was attempting to re-set its relations with the US, with varying success. At different times, Prime Ministers including Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh and US Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama brought new thinking and forward movement; however the momentum could not be sustained and had hit a plateau since 2009, with the Devyani Khobargade episode representing a nadir.  There was general disappointment that the potential that a partnership between the two countries promised would remain a ‘promise’ only. It is not easy for countries to move away from historically-held positions, with bureaucracies particularly wary of straying from the fixed path. It must also be remembered that the generation of the 1960’s-70’s came of age in an India that was desperately poor, dependent of food aid and deeply suspicious of the world which they he

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