HAS INDIA FINALLY given up the ‘hesitations of history’ that marred its relationship with the US for so long? These hesitations were turned into the stuff of history many years earlier. What Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US signals is a degree of comfort and understanding that comes after the air has been cleared.
India-US ties are famous for their frustrations and missed opportunities. In 1961, during a visit to the Taj Mahal, US Vice-President Lyndon Johnson let out a yell. Supposedly to test for an echo at the monument, it was more telling of his frustration with Indian leaders. Then came America’s famous ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan in 1971 that led nowhere. After a quarter century of stasis came the first moves towards rapprochement.
In the 1990s and 2000s, a string of realist prime ministers, PV Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh took significant steps to discard India’s ideological baggage and forged closer ties than ever with the US.
Modi’s task in building the relationship is easier and tougher at the same time. Easier because a lot of spadework has already been done. Tougher because the trickiest moments in relations between strategic partners usually come mid-course. India is not Britain that shares a ‘special relationship’ with the US; nor is it a fledgling and tentative one of the kind seen between Iran and the US. Between those extremes come boredom and bureaucracy. It takes that extraordinary touch by leaders like Modi (who has visited the US four times) and Barack Obama (who has come to India twice) to prevent such a friendship from crashing against those shoals.
It is also a truth that India and the US find themselves in the company of a tough customer: China. Washington and New Delhi need each other to keep an overbearing Beijing in check. This is not a task that either can accomplish on its own. The US has military might but is geographically distant from the theatre of action. India has paid perilously scant attention to military modernisation in the last decade. It is only now that the situation is being remedied, under Modi’s watch, in cooperation with the US. It is in India’s interest to secure as much military hardware and diplomatic support it can get in this important task.