The Indo-US reset was initiated forty-five years back in 1977 by the newly formed Janata Party Government. It attempted to surmount the lingering bitterness of the support of the United States for Pakistan during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971.
The Janata Government collapsed in 1980 and a politically rejuvenated Mrs Indira Gandhi tried to put the past behind, and open a new chapter in India-US relations with President Ronald Reagan, a process that was followed through by her successor Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
However, the Cold War was still in play, and the ideological cleavages still remained sharp.
The Indo-US Nuclear Deal
It was only after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989-1991 and the Washington Consensus became the dominant swan song, that Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao was able to conclusively reorient both India’s economic trajectory and foreign policy direction between 1991-1996. A process that has been followed through by successive Prime Ministers till today.
However, it goes to the credit of Sh Jaswant Singh, who post the second round of Nuclear Tests in May 1998 and explored in earnest the convergences possible in Indo-US relations with his US interlocutor Strobe Talbot. The dialogue culminated in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) enunciated in 2003.
However, the zenith in Indo-US relations was attained and has not been replicated so far, during the Prime Ministership of Dr Manmohan Singh – who not only put in place the building blocks of a defence partnership with the United States by the signing of the New Framework for the US–India Defence relationship in 2005, but followed it up with the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008; both in the teeth of bitter and fierce opposition back home.
The Nuclear Deal has been the highest watermark of the bilateral relationship between the two countries – given that it broke the apartheid that had plagued the Indian Nuclear programme since the first test in 1974.
It led to a series of multilateral global arrangements being instituted to constrain and proscribe India’s nuclear tack and track.
The objective of relating this short history is to underscore that Prime Minister Modi had a solid foundation that had been built over 37 years to take the Indo-US relationship to the next level when he assumed office in 2014. If it has happened in the past nine years is something that needs to be examined carefully.
India's Strategic Autonomy Debate
The Indo-US relationship in many senses of the word hinges upon and is hostage to one word: strategic autonomy. A word that is more often than not used to try and constrain the fusion of latent synergies between India and the United States, especially as to how they view global issues and challenges as they try and develop a closer defence relationship.
A deeper discussion on what exactly constitutes strategic autonomy is imperative.
Does it further the cause of India’s strategic autonomy if we continue to be dependent on one nation for the substantive bulk of our defence needs?
Or, if we continue to pay lip service to shibboleths of the past ignoring the fact that our erstwhile friends and foes have come together to try and rewrite the rules of the post-1991 world order?
Or, that in a region where we remain heavily dependent for our hydrocarbon needs a new power is rewriting the geo-political equations and arrangements?
Or, global trading arrangements and manufacturing hubs still continue to be controlled by an ‘emerging power’ that makes no bones or secret that it aspires to be both the Asian hegemon and a dominant global power not sequentially but concurrently – even if it involves the use of force?
That is where Indo-US convergence becomes important, notwithstanding the shade or colour of whichever government is in office in both India and the United States, because national interests and imperatives are permanent – not the governments that come and go.
Indo-US Joint Statement: Implications
It was a pragmatic decision to sign the three defence foundational agreements with the United States of America namely the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020.
The Joint statement from the United States and India released on 22 June builds on these agreements when it states in Para 14 that “President Biden and Prime Minister Modi also welcomed India’s emergence as a hub for maintenance and repair for forward deployed US Navy assets and the conclusion of Master Ship Repair Agreements with Indian shipyards. This will allow the US Navy to expedite the contracting process for mid-voyage and emergent repair. As envisaged in the Defence Industrial Roadmap, both countries agree to work together for the creation of logistic, repair, and maintenance infrastructure for aircraft and vessels in India”.
This paragraph is perhaps, the most seminal in the Joint statement; for what it ipso facto does, is give basing rights to US naval and air assets even if it is couched in terms like 'hub for maintenance and repair’.
Giving any other Armed Force basing rights, or putting Indian boots on the ground abroad except under the auspices of the United Nations, have been the most contentious issue in India since 1947 and goes to the very heart of the 'strategic autonomy’ debate.
This was a right that India did not even accord to the erstwhile Soviet Union and its successor state Russia notwithstanding the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation signed between the two nations on 9 August 1971.
If the Indian strategic community and the political class allow this to go through unchallenged and uncontested, it would mark the breaching of a very major physiological barrier insofar as India-US relations are concerned. It is far more significant than the decision to jointly manufacture General Electric Jet Engines in India or the purchase of MQ-9B Hale UAVs from General Atomics.
There are other important initiatives in the joint statement, including the partnerships in Critical and emerging technologies, space, and 5G and 6G technologies, to name a few.
However, there are certain glaring omissions. While the Joint Statement in Para 20 talks about pursuing the case of India’s membership of the International Energy Agency (IEA), it is silent about India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It only pays pro forma lip service to the reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the just cause of India’s permanent membership.
Interestingly, the formulation on terrorism has an interesting addition – and that is the Pathankot Airbase terror attack that took place on 2 January 2016. The Pathankot attack came a week after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Raiwind to attend Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter's wedding on 25 December 2015.
It blew Prime Minister Modi’s Ufa and Lahore outreach to Pakistan out of the water. The inclusion of Pathankot is surprising because the para on terror excludes the return of IC-814 hijackers in December 1999 and the Pulwama attack in February 2019 to put the time scale of terror emanating from Pakistan in context.
What the Future Holds for Indo-US Relations
Notwithstanding the hype and hoopla, there are two portentous developments that the NDA/BJP would ignore at its own peril. It represents a ticking time bomb in the Indo-US relations.
The first is the joint statement signed by 75 influential Senators and Congressmen expressing concern over a range of issues. The US, unlike India, is still a legislative democracy and not an executive democracy. A number of India-specific initiatives in the joint statement have to be approved by the US Congress.
The next is the interview by Former President Barack Obama with CNN slam-bang in the middle of the Prime Ministerial visit.
President Obama minced no words in describing the ‘American perception’ of the perceived social unrest in India. He said “If I had a conversation with Mr Modi – who I know well – part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we have seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts”. He added: “That would be contrary to the interests not just of Muslim India but also Hindu India. I think it’s important to be able to talk about these things honestly.”
Former presidents in the United States rarely shoot from the hip. It would be worth recalling that President Joe Biden was Obama’s Vice President for eight long years and the Former President continues to be his greatest supporter still.
The interview by Obama was certainly not coincidental. It had a very pointed message ostensibly with the tacit endorsement of the current incumbent of the White House. A lot can change very swiftly in Indo-US relations if this perception continues to hold the field.
(The author is an MP, Lawyer, and Former I&B Minister. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)