Regardless of how you feel about it—I, for one, think predictions of bountiful nuclear-energy cooperation between India and the U.S. are poppycock—the fact is the deal will help ramp up the India-U.S. relationship for generations to come. It brings closer together two disparate democracies from different places in terms of geography, history, and economic development. Most importantly, it steadies and smoothens the turbulent—at times hostile—relationship between India and the U.S. since India gained independence 61 years ago. And it addresses the biggest irritant in the relationship: nuclear trade.
The road leading to this point has been rocky. Indeed, the India-U.S. relationship has undergone three distinct phases since 1947. During the Cold War years, the two countries were “estranged,” to borrow one analyst’s phrase. Throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, the two countries cautiously improved ties. Let’s call this phase “convergence,” or more aptly, a search for convergence. The Bush presidency is when the relationship improved to such an extent that a true “engagement” began to occur. The nuclear deal strengthens and extends that engagement. To understand and anticipate where the relationship might go from here under a new U.S. president, it’s instructive to understand the evolution of the relationship.
During these 43 years, the relationship between India and the U.S. was mostly cool, sometimes warm, and altogether inconsistent—a situation that caused Dennis Kux of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., to famously characterize the relationship as “estranged.” This was largely because the U.S. and India had different security concerns. The U.S. was primarily focused on containing the Soviet Union and vice versa; this resulted in the Cold War. In contrast, India was worried about Pakistan and China, fighting three wars with the former and one with the latter. India also sought to forge a third way—non-alignment—in response to the global division of nations into the “U.S. bloc” and the “Soviet bloc.” In reality, however, India befriended the Soviets, who paid New Delhi a greater degree of respect and supplied weapons in exchange for Indian products. Unsurprisingly, when the U.S. sought a South Asian ally to “contain” the Soviets, Pakistan raised its hand. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship grew stronger, much to the detriment of the India-U.S. alliance.
A slew of other factors were also responsible for the wobbly state of affairs. Indian and U.S. leaders often regarded each other as condescending and preachy; they also didn’t entirely trust each other. Rich America was poor India’s benefactor, but got little in return, which caused some grumbling on Capitol Hill. India felt its nonviolent independence struggle gave it the moral authority to be a global leader and spokesman for peace, but the U.S. dismissed India as a regional power. U.S. “neutrality” over the Kashmir dispute infuriated New Delhi; Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was incredulous that the U.S. wouldn’t automatically side with a fellow democracy.
The lowest point in the relationship during this era came in 1971, after an Indo-Pakistan war over East Pakistan, which then became Bangladesh. President Richard Nixon dispatched a U.S. vessel into Indian waters to show American support for Pakistan in a definitive U.S. “tilt” toward the Muslim-majority country. Later that year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi moved India closer to the Soviet Union by striking a 20-year friendship treaty with that communist nation.
Warmth crept into the relationship at times, most notably in 1962 and the mid-1980s. The first noteworthy rapprochement came when the U.S. offered military help to Nehru after India lost the 1962 border war with China. But the relationship cooled again after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated the following year. The second instance came when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Ronald Reagan struck up a personal friendship; the Americans regarded the young Gandhi as more amenable to the U.S. view of the world than his mother, Indira, and grandfather, Nehru, had been.
Then the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991. Earlier that year, India had undertaken broad and calibrated market reforms—welcomed by the Americans—to prevent a looming economic meltdown. Those moves, coupled with the emergence of the Indian software industry in the 1990s, began to change American economic perceptions of India. Eager to do business in populous India, after having been shut out or restricted during the decades-long Indian experiment with socialism, U.S. companies clamored to set up shop in India. U.S. policymakers also liked Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s willingness to adopt Western-style reforms. Though those realities laid the groundwork for an economic and military coming-together between India and the U.S, India’s refusal to join the global nuclear non-proliferation regime continued to be problematic throughout the decade.
The end of the Cold War also prompted Clinton to reframe U.S. policies toward India, a country he’d grown to like and respect during his student days. However, Clinton continued to press for the Indians to sign on to treaties such as Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India argued was discriminatory toward poor countries seeking nuclear technology. New Delhi underscored its defiance by conducting its second round of nuclear tests in 1998, announcing India’s weapons status to a surprised world. Clinton promptly slapped sanctions on India and Pakistan, which conducted retaliatory tests.
While the sanctions were in effect in 1999, the Pakistanis infiltrated the Line of Control in Kashmir—the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani portions of the province—precipitating a conflict at Kargil. That conflict, ironically, was good for the India-U.S. relationship, and propelled it toward new heights. Here’s how: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee heeded Clinton’s call for restraint by refraining from launching a massive attack against Pakistan. Clinton then strong-armed Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif into withdrawing his troops and blamed Pakistan for starting the fight. Mammoth talks between Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott paved the way for Clinton’s India visit in 2000, in what’s widely viewed as a groundbreaking trip that underscored the U.S.’s new view of India. Clinton was the first U.S. president in more than two decades to visit the country. In a reciprocal visit to the U.S., Vajpayee called India and the U.S. “natural allies.”
Bush assumed office with a view that India was a rising power that deserved a fresh U.S. approach. Throughout his presidency, he has changed the rationale for closer ties three times. In the beginning, he figured a stronger India could help “contain” China. Quickly, the rationale changed to battling terrorism. Then it became combating global warming by helping India increase electricity generated by nuclear reactors.
While Bush was campaigning for his first term, Condoleezza Rice, then his foreign-policy adviser, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that India should be built up to curb China. Though that rationale wasn’t repeated once Bush became president, many in Congress continued to advance that as a reason for seeking to strengthen the India-U.S. relationship.
For their part, the Indians sought to preserve and intensify the warming trend initiated under Clinton, and minimize, if not eliminate, the nuclear disagreement as an impediment. They got their chance after the 9/11 attacks in New York and northern Virgina, and the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament. Acknowledging India’s long-stated view that both nations face a common foe—radical Islamic terrorism—Bush began an intensive period of defense and anti-terrorism cooperation, even as the economic relationship steadily progressed.
In 2005, a year after the Congress Party regained power in New Delhi and continued the BJP’s policies toward the U.S., Bush made a dramatic offer: he told Singh that he was prepared to help India develop its civilian nuclear capacity. The unprecedented offer was written up in a broad agreement that was announced in March 2006, as Indians gushed about how high their standing had become in the eyes of the world’s sole superpower. Indeed, while much of the world was souring on the U.S. because of the Iraq war and Bush’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy, surveys showed Indians held the U.S. in high regard.
Though nuclear cooperation was its centerpiece, the agreement also sought to strengthen bilateral ties in defense, agriculture, education, and technology, among other areas. Indeed, just this month, Duke University is expanding operations into India, in what could be the beginning of a wave of such cooperative agreements between Indian and U.S. universities. The U.S. Congress approved deal-codifying legislation by the end of 2006 by comfortable margins; fears of a new nuclear arms race in South Asia simply didn’t sway many lawmakers. The Indian expatriate community lobbied hard for the deal, flexing its newly acquired political muscle.
For more than a year, it appeared the deal would die in the Parliament due to opposition from the Indian Left. Critics argued it would undermine India’s sovereignty and make it a puppet of the U.S. in the future, and questioned if India really needed nuclear power anyway, given that less than 10 percent of the country’s energy would come from nuclear power even years from now. Singh staked his political future on the deal winning parliamentary approval and was able pull it off with extraordinary political skill, or luck or chicanery, depending on whom you ask. The Americans have long argued that India needed to send the deal over for final approval on Capitol Hill before Bush leaves—and India managed to do that with the clock about to run out.
The Future of India-U.S. Relations
With the deal as the vehicle, though the pact itself is imperfect, the relationship between India and the U.S. is bound to improve dramatically. As it is, the U.S. is one of India’s most important trading partners, and the U.S. is exporting more to India each year. India also sends more of its students to study in U.S. universities than does any other nation. Outsourcing doesn’t seem likely to abate any time soon, and now Indian companies are moving into the American marketplace, setting up shop in the U.S. and creating jobs here. On the political front, the Indian-American community can congratulate itself for having pushed for the deal. And Indians are also moving into elective office across the U.S. in ever-increasing numbers; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal serves as the most prominent example.
It is important to note, however, that the nuclear deal is deeply flawed and may not accomplish what it principally purports to do, which is to provide India a clean and reliable fuel source. It might very well accelerate the arms race between India and Pakistan by allowing India to use domestic nuclear fuel to enhance its weapons program largely out of public view. Pakistan is undergoing a financial meltdown far worse than what the U.S. and India are experiencing at the moment, but once its finances improve the Pakistanis might well embark on a weapons-buying spree. Nevertheless, the deal is bound to have a broader impact in the years to come by boosting commercial, cultural, and political ties between two democracies half a world apart.
Raju Chebium is a congressional correspondent for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. Previously he worked full-time for The Associated Press and CNN.com, while freelancing for India Currents, The Indian Express, and the New York Times. Raju holds a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University. His thesis examined the Indo-U.S. relationship from 1947 to the present.