Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 23, 2019
Houston, we don’t have a problem: The bipartisan era of Indo-US diplomatic ties

For too long the ‘Indian Dream’ was the ‘American Dream’. That is, for the aspirational classes from as early as the 1960s, the overarching belief was that a STEM degree would unlock great career opportunities stateside. This was during the days of a moribund Soviet-style, centrally planned socialist economy, long before the Indian growth story started.

The Indian diaspora in the United States reflects the educational intelligentsia of India, the new coastal elites, some of the new 1%. To an extent, seeing Donald Trump, a Republican too right for moderate Republicans, address one of the largest congregations of the Indian-American diaspora, may have had its own sense of incongruity.

Texas is a good place to address the changing tide of India-US relations. Perhaps, one would obviously gravitate to a connection between the respective space agencies, given the recent news pertaining to ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which recently celebrated fifty years of the moon landing. But the connection to Texas is unique.

The diminutive but astute Prime Minister Narasimha Rao arrived in the US in June 1994 and was scheduled to meet President Bill Clinton, also addressing a joint session of the Congress. In the 1990s, Kashmir and Punjab had raging insurgencies, human rights groups were up in arms, and President Clinton too did not  shy away from bringing up Kashmir, much to the chagrin of Delhi and the delight of Islamabad.

In the 1990s, Kashmir and Punjab had raging insurgencies, human rights groups were up in arms, and President Clinton too did not  shy away from bringing up Kashmir, much to the chagrin of Delhi and the delight of Islamabad.

India had just opened up its economy in 1991. Its relations with the US were still in a hangover phase from the Cold War, and many in the DC circuit saw New Delhi as a close friend of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Just like Modi, Rao met several energy CEOs in Houston, including the tainted former Enron chief Ken Lay. The first Clinton administration was hawkish towards India’s stance on Kashmir. In 1993, Robin Raphel, had the inaugural post of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia and was rather pugnacious towards India. A close friend of Maleeha Lodhi (current Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations), Raphel went as far as to question the instrument of accession between Kashmir and India.

 But it  was during his joint-session of Congress, where PM Rao assuaged the American members of both houses that Kashmir was an integral part of India. He did this by invoking the state of Texas’ history with the US. He cited that despite the fraught history with Mexico, over the southern state, James Polk’s resolution of 1845 was sacrosanct for the US lawmakers then, making Texas a part of the Union. Similarly, Kashmir’s ascension in October 1947 made it an integral part of India. There were simply no two questions about Raphel’s allegations.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Another Indian Prime Minister returned to Texas this weekend with Kashmir in the backdrop. Apropos to history, in 2015, I penned an article, comparing convivial ties between Democratic and Republican administrations towards India. My research showed that despite the vast majority of Indian-Americans voting Democratic, traditionally Republican administrations had been more favorable to India.

Overarchingly, Democratic administrations going as far back as Woodrow Wilson, (who was in office during World War I), did very little to forward India’s cause for independence. Harry Truman refused to help with economic or food aid to India and did little to help India in resolving the Kashmir dispute which had just broken out. John. F. Kennedy took a passive stance on China’s invasion of Aksai Chin in 1962. JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, let the 1965 conflict with Pakistan escalate, and when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi voiced her disapproval of the bombings in Vietnam, Johnson rolled back on the promised supply of wheat. Jimmy Carter met Prime Minister Moraji Desai in 1978, but was not keen to ship enriched uranium for the Tarapur nuclear plant.

On the other hand, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, had accentuated the Indian independence movement. And while Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, made miscalculations on Pakistan, by and large the Eisenhower administration doubled economic aid to India and approved the PL480 food program. Eisenhower would then become the first U.S. president to visit independent India in 1959. Later, President Ronald Reagan initiated closer technology ties with the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Of course, there is a lot  more nuance with every administration. But the two strong exceptions are Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who lent support to the British during World War II on the condition that Britain would grant India independence. And Republican President Richard Nixon and his NSA turned Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who abhorred Indira Gandhi and allied with Pakistan during the 1971 war.

Of course, the elephant in the room (no reference to the GOP symbol) was that Washington and Islamabad were allies (still are) and New Delhi had a close bonhomie with Moscow in its erstwhile Soviet form. But the India-US relationship has reset over time and even  more so over in the last twenty-five years.

There is no ideological issue (a relic of the Cold War era) that lingers between the two. There is no strategic insecurity, as was evinced back when Clinton imposed sanctions for India’s nuclear tests in 1997. India, since then has proved to be a responsible nuclear power, so much so that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh signed the Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005.

India, since then has proved to be a responsible nuclear power, so much so that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh signed the Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005.

Indo-US bilateral summits have been characterised as meetings by the world’s oldest democracy and the largest democracy, epitomising a shared ideal in democratic values, and a common strategic and security focus. As India’s burgeoning economy took center stage in the last two decades, Washington has long looked at New Delhi as a democratic counterweight to a belligerent China (a sobriquet Delhi abjures).

Of course, the issues that linger, are the finer nuances in the trade deals. But that is  at par with the course, even more so when there is someone such  as Trump, writing his own ‘Art of the Trade Deals’. India and the United States can argue over soybeans while buying submarines. Trade disputes have been common even in close partnerships such as the US and Canada, which have taken their disputes to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The days of bellicosity of the Nixon/Kissinger and Clinton’s first term with Robin Raphel, are as antiquated as the Soviet Union and the Cold War. In the last twenty-five years, India and the US have had convivial ties develop between Clinton and Vajpayee (a Democrat and BJP PM), Bush and Vajpayee (Republican and BJP PM), Bush and Dr. Manmohan Singh (a Republican and a Congress PM), Obama and Dr. Singh (a Democrat and a Congress PM), Obama and Modi (Democrat and BJP) and now between Trump and Modi (Republican and BJP PM).

The various shades of personalities between these individuals, permutations and combinations of left and right parties alternating, accentuates that the Indo-US relationship is truly bipartisan on both sides.

In Houston, the energy capital of the world, Modi and Trump epitomised the high intensity individuals that they are, and the high impact engagement they bring between Washington and New Delhi. While jibes are being passed at Modi for perhaps inadvertently campaigning for Trump in 2020, it is perhaps safe to say that a Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris presidency would not deviate far too much from this established partnership.

India has moved from a country that sought aid, to a country that can now dictate its own terms of trade. What Pakistan is realising with their Kashmir kerfuffle is that part of their weak diplomatic offensive on the global stage is due to Islamabad seeking aid, over trade.

In Texas, Trump referenced the sacrosanctity of both the Indian and American constitutions, highlighting the commonality in the first three words of both institutions: “We The People”. These people, the Indian diaspora in the US, have indeed helped shape the contours of this diplomacy, arguably better than the elected officials have.

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Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas was a Visiting Fellow based out of Washington DC. A journalist by profession Akshobh Giridharadas was based out of Singapore as a reporter ...

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