India has become one of America’s stronger allies over the past two decades. After 9/11, India was actually the first country to confirm their solidarity with America. From a country that was the leader of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War (but always had greater affinity for the Soviet Union), India has become one of the leading emergent economic and political superpowers. As the two of the largest democracies in the world, their alliance should be a natural meeting of the minds. With China’s ever growing military threat in the region, North Korea and Iran always a nuisance, and Pakistan and Afghanistan burning on the other border, close alliances with countries like India will be essential to keep global stability.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush fostered the notion of closer Indo-American ties. Politically, economically, and militarily, the countries have moved closer together. And although many Americans and Indians probably don’t realize this, George Bush was probably the most pro-Indian western leader in history. Bush may be despised in many places around the world, but has relatively favorable ratings in India. In fact, some Indian politicians have argued that Bush should receive the Bharat Ratna (“Jewel of India”), which is India’s highest civilian award. The Bharat Ratna is a very prestigious award in India; it has been awarded only 41 times since its inception in 1954–and only twice to non-Indians, one of whom was the sainted Nelson Mandela. Between growing the bond of the IT industry to the U.S., as well as supporting greater Indian involvement in world affairs, to the India Nuclear Deal which basically accepted India as a nuclear power, and ultimately the bilateral support of the two countries on the war on terror, Bush was a strong proponent of a powerful India.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been less clear in his relationship with India. For example, Obama was lukewarm to the Nuclear deal. In fact, he proposed an amendment that was considered a death-knell for the proposal. Obama has stated that he would push for the U.S. ratification and global entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This issue, more than any other, divided the United States and India in the 1990s, especially when the United States and China — which had helped sponsor Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs targeting India — ganged up on India at the United Nations to press it to accept the test ban.
Obama did make a trip to New Delhi in 2010, and did hold his first state dinner for the Indian Prime Minister. In days past, that would have been enough to placate the subcontinent. But no longer. India views itself as an emerging superpower, and feels that actions must meet with platitudes.
But India in many ways is unique. They are a very large, fast growing, but still poor country. So they have diverging interests to open up trade, while still protecting their more basic industries like agriculture. They have a terrorist threat, largely from the repercussions of Kashmir. They are bordered by two nuclear powers. And although they have close links to the U.S., no one would call America their natural ally.
Militarily, the links between the U.S. and India are steadily growing, both with military purchasing and bilateral cooperation among military personnel. These may be essential for future threats, not only in the region but worldwide. India’s role may grow even larger as Pakistan continues to fail to live up to its side in the bargain in the War on Terror.
Ultimately, it appears that the Indo-American alliance will hinge on the wars in the Middle East…and ultimately, that leads to Pakistan’s role in those wars. For India, that is dangerous. India and Pakistan have made steady progress in their relationship with Kashmir, although the Mumbai terrorist attacks certainly slowed progress. But India certainly does not want a intermediary from the United States, whether from President Obama or whom ever else, getting in the way. Pakistan, on the other hand, is begging for an intermediary. Where the American President lands on this issue will be critical.
Ultimately, Obama and every future American President will have to maintain a solid relationship with India. With the growing power, and potential threat, of China in the Far East, India gives the West a democracy that can counter China’s influence in the region. India will never have the power and strength of China, but even a partial counterbalance allows America to exert its strength through out the Pacific.