US–India relations: Back to a not-so-bright future?
U.S.-India bilateral relations for decades had more form than substance. Gauzy rhetoric about “shared democratic values” papered over tensions rooted in differences over the Cold War. The U.S. wanted India to choose sides; Indian leaders, fresh from an anti-colonial struggle, preferred charting an independent course to being trapped in the slipstream of others’ disputes.
But if India’s leading role in the Nonaligned Movement — and its arms deals with the Soviet Union — put a ceiling on the bilateral relationship, the American public’s generally positive view of India’s struggle for freedom and commitment to democracy established a floor. As a result, even when political tensions arose, the U.S. provided development assistance to India, people-to-people exchanges expanded, and scientific cooperation grew.
The collapse of the Soviet Union signaled an opportunity for a new chapter in the bilateral relationship. The respective governments in the 1990s in Washington and New Delhi began to develop cooperative approaches in a number of areas, including trade, foreign policy, and even military-to-military engagement. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 strained relations and produced U.S. sanctions, but President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000 marked a post-sanctions turning point, which President Bush cemented when he lifted the sanctions in 2001.
Shared concerns about the security implications of China’s growing regional assertiveness provided an additional impetus for Indo-U.S. strategic cooperation. This led to increased U.S. arms sales to India, bilateral and regional military exercises, the U.S. designation of India as a Major Defense Partner, and a number of new consultative fora, including regular meetings between the U.S. Secretary of State and Defense Secretary with their Indian counterparts and revitalizing the dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia.
What has been a generally positive trajectory in Indo-U.S. relations, however, is running into choppy waters.
One reason is Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. Despite President Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighting in September 2021 the two countries’ “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership,” India, like China, has declined to criticize Russia’s attacks on Ukraine at the UN or elsewhere — and it is cutting deals with Russia for discounted oil purchases. This is not surprising, since an estimated 85 percent of India’s military equipment still comes from Russia and the two countries have similar views on the legitimacy of regional spheres of influence, but it suggests the Indo-U.S. “strategic partnership” is transactional, not based on core strategic interests — or values.
Additionally, India is better at talking about strategic partnerships (it has also declared such “partnerships” with Russia, Japan, the UK and France) than in delivering much of substance to those partnerships. One recent analysis found that India is becoming less effective at projecting power in the Indian Ocean (its perceived regional sphere of influence) even as China steps up it regional presence and capabilities.
More significantly, government-led undermining of India’s democratic institutions, processes, and traditions threatens the most fundamental basis for the traditional Indo-U.S. relationship, let alone a strategic partnership.
Many in and out of the country see democracy as being under siege in India. A recurring theme since Modi’s 2014 election has been pressure on and harassment of perceived opponents of the government, such as media owners, journalists, political activists, Muslims, and even judges. Pressure and harassment have come from the government, the police, and Modi’s supporters outside of government, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other more extreme Hindu nationalist groups. Political opponents reportedly may be arrested, beaten, lose access to government advertising, or, in the case of judges, reassigned if their rulings are inconvenient.
As a result of this sustained governmental pressure on the nation’s democratic institutions, Freedom House dropped India from the upper ranks for free nations to a rating of being only partly free; a Swedish research institute now calls India under Modi an “electoral autocracy.”
These anti-democratic developments in India are not yet reflected in U.S. government statements, which still feature paeans to the two countries’ “shared democratic values,” but some analysts of the region are starting to take notice and others will follow.
If it continues, the undermining of India’s democratic institutions and traditions will have a corrosive effect on the popular view of India in the U.S. As a result, the reliable floor under Indo-U.S. bilateral relationship may become less solid and could drift down.
Ironically, this could lead to the U.S.–India relationship becoming more like the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which has never had much popular support among the American public, but U.S. government national security officials and foreign policy analysts in think tanks and academia saw the country and the bilateral relationship as important. The Indo-U.S. relationship, too, could become a creature of government officials and think tank experts, with an atrophying link to the American public at large, despite the sizeable number of Americans with family ties to India.
Neither country would be well served by a downward trend in relations; each needs to take action to prevent the Pakistan-ization of the Indo-U.S. relationship. India cannot ignore the fact that its significant international influence owes more to its past democratic success than its still unfulfilled potential to be an economic and security powerhouse. It is the rare autocracy that has meaningful allies. Modi needs to forego seeking short-term domestic political gains at the expense of India’s democracy in favor of India’s long-term economic and strategic interests. Modi should also move faster on diversifying India’s military supply arrangements.
For its part, the U.S. needs to recognize India’s military, budgets, location, public attitudes, development objectives, and threat perceptions are not like other U.S. partners. As a result, the U.S. needs to carefully tailor its actions and expectations to build a meaningful strategic relationship with India.
Stimson Center analysts, among others, have made some useful recommendations in this regard. But the U.S. should also put the health of India’s democracy on the agenda, given its importance to the durability and character of the bilateral relationship.
The U.S.–India relationship has not, so far, lived up to the rhetoric each country has used to describe it. Nonetheless, the two countries are important to each other, and an effective partnership would be strategically important, regionally and globally.
Achieving a sustainably effective Indo-U.S. strategic partnership, however, will require more realism and candor in what each expects of and can contribute to the partnership — and agreement that their relationship must have as its foundation shared (and implemented) democratic values.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations. He also served as Consul General in Kolkata and Charge’ d’affaires, a.i. at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
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