New Delhi: In a landmark speech to the US Congress in June 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India-US relations had “overcome the hesitations of history".
“Comfort, candour and convergence define our conversations," he said, adding: “Through the cycle of elections and transitions of administrations the intensity of our engagements has only grown."
That was perhaps the best summing up of the state of India-US relations—valid some analysts argue even today. And, it came almost 18 months after Modi stepped up to publically embrace then US President Barack Obama when he landed in New Delhi in January 2015 to attend India’s 66th Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest. By all accounts, Obama’s January 2015 visit can be described as a pivotal moment for ties—it was Obama’s second visit during his two-term presidency. Also significant was that New Delhi had chosen to invite a US president for the first time ever as the chief guest of the country’s Republic Day parade, jettisoning India’s long-held “non-aligned" posture and also any diffidence of publically standing alongside the US.
“It was hugely symbolic, the fact that the US president came to India for the second time in his presidency," said former Indian ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh. “It showed that New Delhi had become important in the US scheme of things." Obama’s two visits to India—in 2010 and in 2015—underlined how far the relationship had evolved from the days that India and the US were known as “estranged democracies".
According to two Indian government officials, though Obama had established a rapport with Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, India-US relations suffered due to the seeming policy paralysis that had beset New Delhi. “It was a time (the last years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government) when there was deep disenchantment in the US with India, a feeling that the promise seen in India-US relations after the signing of the India-US nuclear deal was lost because of India’s civil nuclear liability act (that put the liability of any accident on the foreign suppliers of equipment for nuclear plants rather than the operators), there was a feeling that tax laws in India were restrictive and US companies could not do business in India," said one of the officials cited above, declining to be named. With the election of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government in 2014, “quite a few of the problems were fixed, for example, the retrospective tax laws," the official cited above said. The two countries also managed to reach an understanding on the civil-nuclear liability issue that improved ties, said the second official cited above, also requesting anonymity.
That Modi forged a strong strategic partnership with the US under Obama helped both countries to keep ties on a high through the Trump presidency despite hiccups, like trade, Mansingh said. It was also Obama era policies like the “rebalance" to Asia that helped Modi re-craft the transition from India’s “Look East" to “Act East" strategy, he added.
While the re-imagining of ties with the US was the high watermark of 2015, another standout development was the intensification of India’s interactions with countries across the world. In 2015, Modi undertook 12 visits abroad and visited 28 countries. “There was an internal assessment by the ministry of external affairs, and that showed that there were some countries in the world that no Indian leader (president, vice president, prime minister or ministers) had visited for decades. There were some countries where no leader had ever visited. There was a thinking in government that if India was to position itself as a leading power, India had to ramp up its diplomatic engagement," said one person familiar with the developments, requesting anonymity.
This re-crafting of ties came against the backdrop of China’s increasing assertiveness in its neighbourhood and beyond, Russian disengagement from South Asia, tensions between Iran and its neighbours. The moves were aimed at looking at India’s place in the world at a time when “the centre of world gravity, so to speak, is was shifting from the Euro-Atlantic plane to the Indo-Pacific plane," Mansingh said. “The government’s aim was to ensure that India’s strategic priorities were protected," he said.
One of the “smartest moves" by the prime minister was to recast ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia seen as close to Pakistan, Mansingh said. “This helped to neutralize Pakistan’s efforts to push India into a corner" among Islamic states, he noted. It was in 2015 that Modi visited the UAE, becoming the first Indian prime minister in 34 years to visit the key Gulf nation.