India-US Ties: It’s Like Riding A Roller CoasterSanjaya Baru | 09 January 2023
Foreign correspondents have always been a window to the world. Even in these times of global electronic and social media connectivity, with instant parading of fact and fiction, the professional reporting of a seasoned correspondent still has value.
Many foreign correspondents based in India have written interesting accounts that their home and host country audience have appreciated.
Even though the Indian media has, regrettably, a mere handful of foreign correspondents worldwide, some of them have produced books worth reading.
Pallavi Aiyar’s books written after her assignments in Beijing and Tokyo offer a fascinating Indian view of these two nations. A new addition to the short list of books by Indian journalists posted overseas is Seema Sirohi’s recently published worm’s eye view of the ups and downs of US-India relations over a 30-year period.
Sirohi’s Friends with Benefits: The India-US Story (HarperCollins, 2023) is not the usual foreign correspondent’s account of life and times in the station of one’s posting. Rather, it is a detailed account, virtually a “blow-by-blow” account, so to speak, of the evolution of India-US diplomatic and government-to-government relations since the end of the Cold War. Seema Sirohi was posted to Washington DC in 1990 and so her tenure began with the world-shaking events of that year and next.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the new turn in India’s economic policies.
Three things stand out from Sirohi’s painstakingly detailed account of the evolution of the India-US relationship over the past three decades. First, the persistence of Cold War attitudes in Washington DC well into this century. Second, the shadow of Pakistan and China on the American view of India. Third, the role played by Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, on the Indian side, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, on the US side, in redefining the bilateral relationship.
Interestingly, Sirohi does not have much to say on the role of the Indian diaspora and perhaps she is right in not giving them an exaggerated role in the bilateral relationship. After all, the US has so many diasporas from nations that it has poor relations with. There are times when the diaspora comes into play in a positive manner, and sometimes it can be a source of trouble for diplomats.
Sirohi’s account of the 30-year history has two dimensions to it which are of contemporary relevance. First, she shows how systematically both countries managed to construct this relationship over a fairly long period of time, despite frustratingly constant changes in governments and personnel on both sides. Former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill once said to me: “For you India’s history begins five thousand years ago. For every American administration, it begins on the day of the presidential inauguration.” Blackwill was often frustrated both by Indians remembering too many negative stories from the past and his American colleagues not knowing anything about the past in the bilateral relationship.
Second, Sirohi shows how deftly Pakistani diplomacy managed to keep the United States on its side so that US-Pakistan relations repeatedly threw a spanner in the works of the evolving US-India relationship. This happened with almost every President -- Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, with the singular exception of George Bush Jr. Indeed, I have often argued that President Bush Jr was the one individual who fundamentally altered the bilateral relationship. It was not just with the civil nuclear deal but with his overall strategic approach to India.
Sirohi’s account of the relationship is worth reading at this particular time when doubts have been raised about where it is headed, especially in the context of India’s stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the American attempts from time to time to breathe life into an otherwise testy relationship with both Pakistan and China.
Given the manner in which both India and the United States have kept their balance on what has clearly been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of this relationship.
Very different political leaders and governments in both countries -- Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi in India and Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the US -- kept the flame of the strategic partnership alive. You cannot get a more diverse set of political leaders than this lot. If Singh-Modi and Obama-Trump, with all their differences, could stay the bilateral course, then US-India relations can be declared to be stable, even if not predictable.
What is also clear is that both countries have their own priorities in some important areas and they have to learn to live with these differences. The US-China and US-Pakistan relationship will frustrate India while the India-Russia relationship will frustrate the US. Both countries will pursue an independent foreign policy that may run parallel on many fronts, but not on all.
This is the core of the reality of the nature of the two countries and their bilateral relationship that scholars and foreign affairs commentators in both countries must understand. Far too many in both countries have entertained unrealistic expectations and baseless fears about the bilateral relationship. India-baiters and India-enthusiasts in the US have often been frustrated by New Delhi’s assertion of “strategic autonomy”, just as friends and critics of the US in India have also gone off the tangent predicting either that India would become a military ally of the US or that India would finally succeed in pushing both China and Pakistan off the US map of Asia.
Perhaps one should thank Vladimir Putin for clarifying many minds in New Delhi, Washington DC and many other capitals around the world. He managed to force the Indian political leadership to clarify the nature of India’s relations with various powers. In dealing with the post-Ukraine world, India has had to carefully define the nature of the relationship it hopes to maintain with various big powers. There is now, I believe, greater clarity in major capitals on how India views its relations with the world. India’s adversaries may still try to throw spanner in the works, but we have shown we know how to ride the roller-coaster.
Sanjaya Baru is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
This article was originally published on Deccan Chronicle.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.