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Aligned but Autonomous: India-US Relations in the Modi Era

Introduction: Modi Heralds a New Era in India-US Partnership

Harsh V. Pant and Vivek Lall

In June 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined an elite league of leaders, such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, who have been invited to address the United States (US) Congress twice. In his first address to the joint meeting of the US Congress in 2016, relatively newly minted as prime minister, Modi celebrated how India and the US had overcome “the hesitations of history” and called upon the two nations to “work together to convert shared ideals into practical cooperation” (1). In 2023, this time basking in the prestige of India serving as president of the G20, he described the partnership between India and the US as the “defining partnership of this century”. He said: “Through the long and winding road that we [India and the US] have travelled, we have met the test of friendship” (2).

It has been a long and winding road indeed, not only for India and the US, but for Modi himself. For a leader who was shunned by the US for years, the June 2023 speech was momentous in the crafting of a more robust trajectory for India-US bilateral ties. For many who had assumed that the civil nuclear pact, signed in 2005, was the high water mark of bilateral engagement, Modi's push for greater synergy between New Delhi and Washington by burying shibboleths of the past has been a revelation. His leadership has been critical in ensuring that long-pending foundational agreements were finalised and new vistas were identified, including in the domains of technology and defence. Working with three US presidents of disparate temperaments over the last 10 years, Modi has succeeded in forging a personal bond with each one, keeping the focus squarely on the wider aim of strategic convergence.

This is not to say that there have been no differences; the relationship has continued to grow despite those differences. As US Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer has suggested, there are several “difficult issues” that remain in the relationship “right up to the present day” (3). At the same time, he underlined that there is a bipartisan view in the US that both countries must seize the important opportunities that the world is presenting to the two sides, both geopolitically and economically.

This moment in the India-US relationship is, therefore, a unique and important one. In the words of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, “there is structural soundness in the India-US relationship”, and it is “certainly proofed against political check” (4). The world’s two major democracies are becoming more adept at overcoming the obstacles in their relationship, driven as they are by a singular strategic logic. It is now a strategic imperative for the two to work closely together to maintain a favourable balance of power that advances their key interests and sustains their values. This is particularly true in this age of the Indo-Pacific, with the rise of China paving the way for new challenges to emerge.

The US has understood that while a sustained focus on the Indo-Pacific is needed, it will have to be buttressed by strengthening old partnerships and building new ones. The ‘hubs and spokes’ alliance framework of the Cold War era is no longer tenable. Even as it may work with traditional allies like Japan, Australia, and South Korea—and reassure them of the US’s long-term regional commitment—it will be put to the test with newer partners like India, which may never enter into formal alliances. Informal, ad-hoc coalitions will have to be built to ensure that convergences can be exploited and divergences are managed. This will also require shedding older inhibitions about sharing critical technologies, given their centrality in shaping the 21st-century balance of power.

Yet this change and its acceptance across both sides of the political spectrum could only happen because India, too, has evolved in the last decade. Throughout the Cold War, New Delhi understood non-alignment as an instrument to achieve strategic autonomy by eschewing close partnerships. That understanding is being turned on its head, as Indian policymakers today deem strong partnerships as imperative means to enhance the country’s strategic autonomy. Issue-based coalitions are now the norm in India’s external engagements. India is no longer non-aligned but rather is willing to align according to particular issues. Such alignments will not mean formal alliances, but they represent a significant shift in Indian foreign policy discourse and practice.

This reconfiguration in India-US relations could not have happened without Modi’s stewardship of Indian foreign policy. In 2016, following his address before the US Congress, India and the US agreed to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a long-pending foundational defence agreement first proposed in 2006. It took approximately a decade for India to sign the agreement, mostly because New Delhi remained hesitant about entering into a close defence partnership with the US. The hesitancy was, in turn, attributable, at least in part, to the ideological legacy of the adversarial Cold War-era relationship, underpinned by India’s preference for ‘non-alignment’, and in part, too, to a leadership that was short on authority, if not conviction.

Since the end of the Cold War, successive Indian governments have signalled a commitment to a robust partnership with the US. However, it required Modi’s steadfast leadership to usher in a fundamental transformation in the India-US relationship. From resolving the vexatious issue of civil nuclear energy cooperation to significantly upgrading defence and technology cooperation, from arriving at a common understanding on a range of international issues to building a truly global partnership, India-US relations seem to have reached a place where every challenge can be transformed into an opportunity.

As the political reality of the 2014 elections indicated a clear shift in power in New Delhi, the Obama administration at the time moved swiftly to restore normalcy in its relations with Modi. For Washington, the message was simple: Modi’s historic mandate could bring new vigour to the relationship that appeared to be drifting. Modi was equally pragmatic, losing no time in reaching out to the US and agreeing to a bilateral summit meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington in September 2014. These early indications suggested that amid the divergence in India-US relations that grew under the second UPA government, Modi, as prime minister, was determined to get the bilateral relationship back on track.

From the outset, Modi’s foreign policy practice displayed a conviction that if India-US relations were to progress, the impediments would have to be removed, resulting in a qualitative shift. Even though most prime ministers before Modi attempted to build a strong partnership with the US, the tone and tenor of Modi’s outreach to the country has been markedly different. It is no longer ambivalent, and unhindered by the ideological baggage of non-alignment. Furthermore, Modi’s personalised diplomacy has added a new flavour to the bilateral relationship. He managed to establish a personal relationship with all three US presidents who have ruled during his term. Unlike his predecessors, Modi has also been a problem-solver: the alacrity with which the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence have responded to the many challenges facing them, such as the civil nuclear liability and defence cooperation agreements, stands in contrast to the apathy of the previous government.

One reason behind this growing strategic embrace lies in individual conviction. The US remains essential to Modi’s vision of India’s radical transformation. The success of his many ambitious plans for India’s economic transformation, from ‘Make in India’ to ‘Digital India’, hinges upon greater cooperation with the US. As he wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal published in September 2014, “India and the US have a fundamental stake in each other’s success” (5), and New Delhi’s stake is even higher, given India’s quest for rapid transformation into a developed economy. His government’s open commitment to the India-US relationship is one of the most dramatic changes in that bilateral relationship.

It heralds a new foreign policy dynamic in which hardy India-US ties are viewed as an important component of enhanced strategic autonomy for India. This is in contrast to the traditional view of non-alignment, which regarded a close relationship with the US as a constraint to Indian foreign policymaking.

This volume examines the trends in India-US ties under the Modi government over the last decade. It starts with the big picture of three Ds—diaspora, democracy, and diplomacy. Dhruva Jaishankar suggests that India’s large diaspora in the US and a shared sense of democracy between the two continue to deepen India-US relations, despite differences. He argues that both nations “will have to assiduously work towards better understanding each other if these factors are to support—rather than detract from—diplomatic cooperation.”

Arun Kumar, who served as the US’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets, surveys Modi’s outreach to the Obama administration and finds that it set the course for re-energising bilateral activities between the two governments, specifically in areas such as trade, defence, and counterterrorism. A relationship that had seemed moribund was brought back to life by Modi’s energetic diplomatic engagements, setting the course for a ‘defining partnership’.

Many nations may have found the transition from Obama to President Donald Trump difficult to navigate. But as S. Paul Kapur highlights in his essay, not only did the US-India relationship flourish during the Trump era, but general strategic predictability in the US-India partnership led to particular, unexpected achievements, and India under Modi made full use of the resultant opportunities.

Sameer Patil and Vivek Mishra examine the Biden era, arguing that while new policies under the Biden administration have ensured that the bilateral relationship gathers new momentum, the US has found a complementary and enabling partner in the Modi government, resulting in a relationship with India that is “stronger, closer and more dynamic than at any other time in history.” Biden is the third US president that Modi has engaged with; in his engagements with all three, Modi has imparted an assuredness to the relationship through deft political management.

Trisha Ray’s essay focuses on India’s burgeoning technology partnership with the US. Having now emerged as the centrepiece of India-US bilateral engagement, this partnership on emerging technologies has made headway over the last few years. The progress is seen both bilaterally and under the aegis of the Quad, especially as India's deteriorating strategic relations with China and the US’s trade restrictions targeting China have prompted efforts to reduce dependence on China.

The other main driver in the India-US relationship is their defence ties. Vikram J. Singh examines their evolution, with regular exercises, better and more interoperable capabilities via defence trade, and new arrangements to facilitate cooperation, including the sharing of sensitive intelligence, becoming the norm over the past decade as opposed to being the exception in the past. Despite challenges and naysayers on both sides, Singh asserts that not only has there been a “substantial acceleration in the decade since Prime Minister Modi took office” but “the expectations of the two sides have been realistic and quite well matched.”

With the centre of gravity of global politics and economics shifting to the Indo-Pacific, India-US partnership in this key strategic geography has been characterised as “a combination of parallelism, alignment, and convergence,” as noted by Satu Limaye and Lei Nishiuwatoko. Taking a cue from Modi’s articulation of the shared vision of an open, stable, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region being a pillar of India-US partnership, “the Indo-Pacific is set to be an enduring and sustainable facet of India-US bilateral ties into the foreseeable future.”

One of the most striking developments in the India-US partnership in the last decade has been its rapid and effective institutionalisation. Ian Hall examines this trend in his essay. He suggests that “this expanding web of institutionalised relationships between the US and India provide evidence of deepening trust at a political level, as well as a strong appreciation in both New Delhi and Washington of mutual interests.”

Max Abrahams and Soumya Awasthi examine the issue of terrorism, where India-US cooperation has waxed and waned. In more recent years, convergence between the two nations has grown, with Modi and Biden nurturing an alliance in combating terrorism. There are still challenges, as the authors underline, but the inherent pragmatism of the Modi government has ensured the emergence of a productive partnership.

Atul Keshap closes the volume by providing an overview of India-US economic ties. He underlines how “the symbiosis between the US's unmatched industrial expertise and capacity for capital deployment and India's peerless scalability and talented labour force has thus far produced a potent combination for global markets and provided a bright spot for an otherwise sluggish global economy.” In recent years, key initiatives have been focusing on critical technologies, defence tech, and innovation, which would not have been possible without the growing mutual trust between the two nations.

As the various contributions in this volume illustrate, the India-US partnership under Modi’s leadership is the strongest it has ever been. The past decade has seen a fundamental transformation in a relationship which, for all the opportunities, was seen as one that is never really able to achieve its full potential. Today, the US needs a democratic, economically buoyant India to craft a stable regional order in the Indo-Pacific. And India, too, requires a solid partnership with the US if it is to fulfil its massive domestic development needs and manage its external challenges effectively. Modi's singular contribution lies in recognising this fundamental reality and working toward operationalising it over the past decade. 


(1) “Full text of PM Narendra Modi's historic speech in the US Congress,India Today, September 17, 2016.

(2) Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Address by Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi to the Joint Session of the US Congress,” June 23, 2023.

(3) Suhasini Haider, “India and U.S. can resolve differences, say Jaishankar, Finer, The Hindu, December 4, 2023.

(4) “There Is Structural Soundness In India-US Relationship: S Jaishankar,NDTV, December 5, 2023.

(5) Narendra Modi, “An Invitation to 'Make in India',Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2014.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Vivek Lall

Vivek Lall

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