Video Producer/Editor: Shohini Bose
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's forthcoming visit to the United States is being hailed as a pivotal moment in Indo-US relations, with expectations of multiple agreements being signed to enhance cooperation across various sectors, including defense and critical technologies.
Since coming to power in 2014, PM Modi has visited the US on six occasions, engaging with three presidents: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. However, this upcoming visit holds a special significance as it will be his first State visit.
President Joe Biden will host Prime Minister Modi for an Official State visit, complete with a state dinner, on 22 June. While this will not be PM Modi's maiden address to the US Congress, as he had previously done so in 2016, it will mark a historic occasion.
He will become the seventh Indian Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of the US Congress, that too for the second time in his two tenures. His earlier address took place during his visit to the US in June 2016.
Marked by massive receptions, coverage and diaspora outreach, PM Modi's US visits have had a huge effect on bilateral ties. But Modi is not the only prime minister who's had a robust relationship with the United States.
In 1949, Nehru embarked on his inaugural visit to Washington DC, where he received a warm welcome. He arrived in the United States aboard President Truman's personal aircraft, The Independence. This marked the beginning of Nehru's four visits to the US, with subsequent trips occurring in 1956, 1960, and 1961.
During this visit, Nehru expressed his hope for friendly and fruitful cooperation between the two countries, which would be mutually beneficial and serve the greater good of humanity. Secretary of State Blinken highlighted Nehru's sentiments during a meeting on Monday.
Often referred to as a "goodwill tour," Nehru spent three weeks touring various parts of the US. He met with members of the House and the Senate and visited cities like Chicago and New York, as well as the Tennessee Valley and rural areas of Illinois. Nehru engaged with individuals from diverse backgrounds, including businesspeople, artisans, and academics.
Accompanying Nehru on this significant journey were GS Bajpai, the first secretary general in the Ministry of External Affairs, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi later became India's prime minister, following in her father's footsteps.
An interesting sight, during Nehru's visits in 1949 and 1961, when US Presidents Harry Truman and John F Kennedy broke protocol and arrived at the airport to receive Nehru. Kennedy went as far as entering Nehru's plane to welcome him.
Indira Gandhi first visited the US as India's PM on 27 March, 1966 for a 5-day official visit, following an invitation from President Lyndon B. Johnson, which saw her visit Williamsburg and New York City.
During her visit, the Indo-US Education Foundation was proposed, although it faced significant opposition in India and did not come to fruition. At that time, the US had suspended aid to India due to the Indo-Pak war in 1965. However, the visit did help India secure increased food and development aid from the US.
Relations between India and the US deteriorated significantly under President Richard Nixon, particularly after India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971.
A conversation between former US President Richard M Nixon and his then national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, ahead of the 1971 Bangladesh war – revealed by recently declassified tapes published in the New York Times – provide shocking evidence of the duo’s bigotry, sexism and racism towards Indians.
During Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's second state visit to the US on 4 and 5 November, 1971, Nixon reportedly developed a negative perception of her and extended his dislike to encompass all Indians. On 4 November, 1971, while taking a private break from a White House summit, Nixon shared his sentiments with his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, expressing his disapproval of Indians. He stated, "To me, they turn me off. How the hell do they turn other people on, Henry? Tell me."
During her visit in 1982, she and then President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement that implied cooperation in science and technology on the Tarapur nuclear plant.
At the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, the first non-Congress prime minister, Morarji Desai made an official visit to the US in June 1978. Desai had good reasons for the visit –The Janata Party's widely acclaimed visit in 1977, and the hope that the victory may see a 'correction' in India's perceived shift towards the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
During the visit, the Indian PM spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York and was due to visit President Carter in Washington DC, when he made a stop at the West Coast, where he received a citation from the University of California at Berkely and also spoke to a relatively small but growing crowd filled with members of the Indian community in Silicon Valley.
The Times of India on 12 June, 1978 reported that while the event was filled with people who were "generally sympathetic," the event was disrupted by a group of Indian students.
“Some of the placards read ‘Only communism can save India, Down with Desai regime’ ‘Puppet of imperialism’ ‘Down with Desai, butcher of Indian people,'" the report said.
Morarji Desai also visited the Giant Redwood trees near San Francisco and was presented with the key to the city.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was made PM hours after his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated, was keen to rest India's relationship with the US, one that was tenuous given Indira Gandhi's perceived tilt towards the Soviet Union. Rajiv Gandhi made two successful and publicised visits to the US in June 1985 and October 1987.
Within his remarks for the visit, dated 20 October 1987, President Ronald Regan expressed his delight to welcome Rajiv Gandhi to the US after the pair's previous "useful discussions on the status of US-Indian relations."
"We noted that in the years since our meeting in 1985 substantial progress has been made. Bilateral trade has expanded. Collaboration between our private sectors has intensified. We've enjoyed cooperation in defense production, notably the Indian light combat aircraft."Ronald Raegan's Remarks Following Discussions With Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, 20 October 1987
A CIA report from August 1985, mentioned in a report by The Economic Times, noted three positive signals from Rajiv Gandhi's US visit. First, his "apparent willingness to give a fair hearing to other points of view strongly suggest that he is motivated to try to cut through emotionally charged issues, to get into problem-solving."
It further noted his keen interest in western technology and desire to technologically modernise India. A striking image from one of his visits is Raegan accompanying Gandhi to his car, personally holding an umbrella for the Indian PM.
PV Narasimha Rao
Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao first visited the US in January 1992 and met with President George Bush during a United Nations Security Council Summit in New York City.
He subsequently visited the US in May 1994 and visited New York City, Boston and Houston, and also addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress.
Although Narasimha Rao's speech to Congress was poorly attended, it received a positive response. He even received applause for subtly mentioning India's decision not to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a significant disagreement between him and the newly elected President Bill Clinton.
The Cold War era heightened tensions between Washington and New Delhi. During his address to Congress, the prime minister humorously remarked, "I shall now skip the Cold War," which garnered laughter. But the Indian PM avoided all contentious topics.
While discussing Kashmir, Narasimha Rao presented India's perspective without explicitly mentioning the disputed territory.
However, during an address at Harvard, he passionately declared, in response to a question, "I have no authority to compromise even a millimeter of land that rightfully belongs to the Indian people, now and forever."
As for China, he carefully avoided mentioning the country altogether. Pakistan also did not find a place in his speech.
Inder Kumar Gujral
Previously the Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union and minister of external affairs, Inder Kumar Gujral, travelled for a nine-day visit to New York for the UN General Assembly Session in September 1997.
Gujral and his wife, Shiela, attended a reception hosted by their hosts, the Clintons, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, but reports say that it was political tensions back home that Gujral was pre-occupied with. Hillary Clinton had extended a personal invitation to Gujral when she had visited India for Mother Teresa's funeral.
On 21 September1997, the eve of the UN summit, the Gujrals were scheduled to attend the reception for fellow Punjabis in the US. After waiting for half-an-hour, with another reception to attend, they attempted to discreetly leave but were dissuaded by security personnel. Eventually, at 6:20 pm, they decided to use the elevator at the main exit.
To their astonishment, they bumped into Clinton himself as the doors opened.
The next day, after the 45-minute summit with Clinton and his senior staff, Gujral described it as the "most extraordinary" day of his life. To his relief, the Americans seemed more interested in engaging in a private conversation, and no uncomfortable questions were posed regarding Kashmir.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee made several significant visits to the United States during his tenure with the first official visit taking place in September 2000 and aimed to strengthen bilateral relations between India and the United States. During this trip, Vajpayee met with then-President Bill Clinton, addressed a joint session of the US Congress, and signed the landmark Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP).
In November 2001, just months after the 9/11 attacks, Vajpayee embarked on his second visit to the United States with a primary focus on addressing the global threat of terrorism and his meetings with President George W Bush centered around counterterrorism measures and regional security.
In September 2002, Vajpayee attended the UN General Assembly in New York City and he met with President Bush to discuss the India-Pakistan conflict and the situation in Afghanistan. He also attended the UN General Assembly session the subsequent year.
Vajpayee in his address to joint session of the US congress remarked:
"Just as American experience has been a lesson in what people can achieve in a democratic framework...In your remarkable experiment as a nation-state, you have proven the same truth."
Vajpayee saw the US as an important partner for shaping a democratic, prosperous, tolerant, pluralistic and stable Asia. During one of his visits, a memorial was dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi.
During his 10-year tenure from 2004 to 2014, Manmohan Singh made eight visits to the United States, which ranged from official state meetings to meetings of the G-20 Economic Summit and the UN General Assembly.
His first term saw four visits to the US, where Singh met then-President Bush at the UN General Assembly in New York and most significantly, in 2005 India and the United States ink the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, a historic framework that ended a three-decade-long US moratorium on nuclear energy trade with India.
The agreement was finalised during President George W. Bush's visit to India in 2007, and it received final approval from the US Congress in October 2008.
One of the highlights of Manmohan Singh's visits to the US were the Mangoes-for-Motorcycles scheme, which saw the he first shipments of Indian mangoes arrive in the United States, ending an 18-year ban on importing the fruit as part of an agreement reached to double trade. In response, India said that it will relax restrictions on importing Harley-Davidson motorcycles from the United States
Manmohan Singh was also the first head of state to be invited for a White House dinner by President Obama in 2009 and had received a resounding reception.
Prominent Indian Americans gathered in the city to attend a dinner, making it a high-profile event and the three-day trip was filled with festivities, celebrating ties between India and the US, but it failed to yield any significant breakthroughs in the bilateral relationship.
He also attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010 and also made a working visit in 2013. However, his last visit to Washington in 2014 was more low-key and failed to generate much enthusiasm and support.