Prime Minister Narendra Modi has from the beginning worked to improve relations between ‘natural’ allies, India and the US. Too many times in the past have India’s close relations with Russia (USSR) adversely impacted ties with the US, particularly during the Indira Gandhi days, when both nations worked with diametrically opposite interests on the Bangladesh liberation issue. Unfortunately, even the winding down of the Cold War has not led to greater trust and cooperation. Despite all this, the ‘natural’ element of the relationship – being democracies, former colonies of Britain, having diverse populations and hugely individualistic cultures – has kept the relationship afloat.
The biggest adverse impact of the difficulties has been on the economic front. The US preferred to invest hugely in China, rather than confront the bureaucratic maze of rules in India. Unfortunately for all, this greatly strengthened the hands of the totalitarian regime in China and also created a crippling dependence on its economy. The belief that improved living conditions in China would lead to the emergence of democracy was belied. The present US President is trying to correct this situation, in somewhat hamhanded manner, but certainly with some effect.
At the same time, though, the understanding of India within the American establishment has not improved much and continues to create hindrances. Ironically, interest in India peaked most in the ‘hippie’ era when young people were greatly influenced by the principles of ‘love, peace and tranquility’ promoted by the Mahesh Yogi types. The last US President from that generation with an instinctive understanding of India was Bill Clinton. (Unfortunately, this did not rub off on his wife.) Under the circumstances, India has fared better with the ‘transactional’ approach of the Republicans rather than the preachy attitude of the Democrats. Modi invited Barack Obama to India in the hope that it would be a new start. Unfortunately, Obama bought a different line and, instead of furthering US interests, chose to advise Indians on how to run their country.
The problem with the proposed visit by incumbent Donald Trump will be of a different kind. Instead of the intellectual snobbery of the Washington elite, it will be all round ignorance about India. As such, the backroom boys of both countries will need to boil everything down to two elements – the areas where the US can make money, and how to go about pleasing the Americans of Indian Origin for the votes. Modi, on his part, will need to watch out for the many political and interest groups who will seek to run interference in the way a word in Obama’s ear had ruined an otherwise successful visit.