Why Modi-Biden bonhomie was possible

Every Indian PM and American president has taken the relationship further

Biden US India Warm vibes: Prime Minister Modi with President Biden at the White House | AP

Jawaharlal Nehru’s name may have been dropped from the Teen Murti House Museum and Library by the Union government, but during his recent visit to the US and Egypt, it was perhaps not easy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to steer clear of Nehru’s looming presence. Nehru was one of the founders of the Non-Alignment Movement―the cornerstone of Indian foreign policy for decades―along with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. And the legacy still endures.

In Washington, before the guests at the state dinner hosted in Modi’s honour tasted the marinated millet, the US Marine band played ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’―evoking memories of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when president John F. Kennedy helped India, even without a formal alliance.

Although the India-US honeymoon under Nehru lasted just a short while, Kennedy became a hero in India as the US shared crucial aerial photographs which were key to India’s war efforts, just like intelligence was shared in 2020 when violence erupted in the Galwan Valley. Kennedy also broke protocol and greeted Nehru in his plane when he arrived for a visit in 1961.

50467990 Prime minister Narasimha Rao with president George H.W. Bush in New York | Getty Images

As Modi nibbled samosas with Vice President Kamala Harris, the soundtrack had moved to “There’s no mountain high enough... to keep me from getting to you’’, symbolising how far the relationship has come over the years. Modi’s state visit has formalised the possibility of joint defence production between the two countries, taking the partnership to the next level. The comfort level on display was possible because the relationship has been over 30 years in the making, starting with the end of the Cold War and blossoming further with the civil nuclear deal, through the tenures of multiple presidents and prime ministers.

“Every Indian prime minister and American president has taken our relationship further,’’ said Modi, addressing the joint session of the US Congress. “But our generation has the honour of taking it to greater heights. I agree with President Biden that this is a defining partnership of this century because it serves a larger purpose. Democracy, demography and destiny give us that purpose.”

Apart from Lal Bahadur Shastri, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar―all other Indian prime ministers have visited the US. Seven American presidents―Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump―have visited India. The relationship started to flourish from the time of George H.W. Bush as he presided over the end of the Cold War. Under incumbent President Joe Biden, it has become one of the most important bilateral partnerships for the US.

Lessons from history: Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee receiving president Bill Clinton in Delhi | AFP Lessons from history: Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee receiving president Bill Clinton in Delhi | AFP

“The biggest takeaway is that this relationship has become a truly strategic partnership,’’ said Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director at the Washington-based think tank, Wilson Center. “It is not an alliance, but it is not far from one. It is quite clear that the relationship is multifaceted, with many different areas of cooperation, not just security, and plenty of tracks separate from China and even geopolitics. There is a lot of trust and goodwill, a far cry from the difficult days of the 1970s and 1980s. And, long-time sticking points―trade tensions, hesitation about tech transfers, even the Russia issue―are starting to melt away. We are seeing the emergence of a full-fledged long-term partnership, something that certainly will not please Beijing and will ensure enduring China-India tensions.’’

While Modi may enjoy the strategic hug from Biden, despite the unease within the administration over human rights and India’s stand on Russia, the credit for the first step in improving ties goes to P.V. Narasimha Rao. It was Rao who pushed the Indo-US relationship towards the “destiny’’ that Modi refers to. His meeting with Bush Sr on January 31, 1992, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, broke the ice between the two leading democracies. Rao realised that the Cold War was history and the US was the winner. The winds of change were blowing through Gorky Park and the Soviet dream was over. Bush and Rao took the opportunity and started talking, and they did not leave out even the most controversial topic that troubled bilateral relations―India’s nuclear ambitions.

Rao was aware of the allure of the Indian market and signalled that he was liberalising the economy. He lifted the ban on foreign companies setting up shop in India. Rao came calling again two years later. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was in power, but, by then, a bipartisan consensus has started emerging in the US about the need for robust ties with India. “Suddenly, all my cabinet members want to visit India,” Clinton told Rao. When the two met at the Oval Office, there was some tension in the air. Rao reassured Clinton by saying that democracy was the future, which gave India and the US a common ground. He said it could change the world and spur economic growth and cooperation.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh with president George W. Bush at a G8 summit in Germany | PTI Prime minister Manmohan Singh with president George W. Bush at a G8 summit in Germany | PTI

“If you look at the Indo-US strategic saga, Rao was the one who broke the ice,’’ said Rakesh Sood, a retired diplomat who saw firsthand the change in bilateral ties over the decades. “In 1992, the dialogue on nuclear issues began at the level of joint secretary, but it went through several ups and downs.”

But India’s nuclear tests of 1998 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee came as a major roadblock in bilateral ties as the US imposed sanctions against India. Yet, Vajpayee was able to convince the US about ending the freeze and returning to the negotiating table. Sood spoke about how Vajpayee sent his trusted aide Jaswant Singh to talk to deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbot. “Those were some of the most intensive, inclusive and productive talks,’’ he said. “There were 18 rounds of talks in 24 months. It was inconclusive because we signed no agreement, but it was most productive as it changed the perspective on nuclear issues and security between the two countries.”

The task was immense. The Pakistani lobby was still very strong in Washington. Talbot himself had made it clear that the sanctions would stay unless India signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Yet, Jaswant prevailed. He made a passionate and convincing defence of India’s nuclear ambitions―peaceful, and very much at the heart of its strategic autonomy―that helped India emerge out of its isolation.

On July 18, 2005, it was clear that India was officially back in Washington’s good books as the two countries reached an agreement on New Delhi separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities and opening up the civilian facilities for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US, in return, agreed to work for full civil nuclear cooperation with India. The agreement was clinched during an official visit of prime minister Manmohan Singh. “The successful completion of this initiative clears the way for even greater engagement in a number of key areas in which cooperation has previously been limited or non-existent. The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, announced in January 2004, was designed to increase cooperation in civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programmes, high-technology trade and missile defence,’’ read the joint statement by the two sides. Three years later, Manmohan and Bush formally concluded the civil nuclear deal. The prime minister withstood tremendous opposition and even risked his government to clinch the deal.

Bilateral partnership has only deepened under Modi, from boosting defence ties to reaping the benefits of the high-technology agreements signed a decade ago. “Bush and Obama pushed for defence ties,’’ said Sood. “But Modi, along with Trump and Biden, has moved it to the strategic sphere.”

The relationship seems to be strong and committed despite concerns about democracy in India, aired in private. And it is going from strength to strength, thanks to China’s continuing rise and threatening presence. “The increasing intensity of the China challenge, as perceived by both Washington and New Delhi, has accelerated the growth of US-India security partnership in recent years,’’ said Kugelman. “Both countries have seen their relations with Beijing fall to their lowest levels in decades, and both perceive China as a threat, not just as a mere competitor or rival.”