A new book captures how relations between the two countries, shaped by the decisions of heads of state, diplomats and major events, took a turn for the worse before they got better at the turn of the new century

The India-US relationship may seem to be on pretty solid ground today but that was not the case in history, a new book called A Matter of Trust: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump by Meenakshi Ahamed, a long-time journalist who’s written extensively on foreign affairs, reminds the public. Ahamed opens the book by describing the ‘Howdy Modi!’ event in Texas in September last year to emphasise just how far the ties between the two countries had come.

The sight of 500,000 Indian-Americans swarming the NRG stadium, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump walking hand-in-hand for the cameras, was a far cry from the India-US relations of 1947. Back then, India had just emerged from the shadows of British colonialism and was yet to formulate its South Asia policy. Shunning both the western and the communist camp that characterised the post-war era, India chose ‘non-alignment’ as its guiding rule to navigate the new world.

But holding its ground to the principle was easier said than done. In 1948, for example, India had abstained from voting on a UN resolution condemning the communist takeover, engineered by Russia, in Czechoslovakia. President Harry Truman, who didn’t accept non-alignment as a credible foreign policy stance, thought India was using that as cover for communist sympathies.

India, on the other hand, was recovering from a bruising UN session where the UK and the US, along with other countries, voted for Pakistan’s claim in Kashmir. The US secretary of state, George Marshall, was not convinced by the British position on Kashmir which he felt tilted far too in favour of Pakistan but chose not to ruffle feathers because Britain was an important buffer against communist expansion.

Similarly, when the Soviets had invaded Hungary in 1956, India had abstained from condemning the Russian aggression because it needed Russia as an ally. By the time the crisis had unfolded, America was supplying arms to Pakistan to serve its own interests in the Middle East. Though Nehru had warned America that arms would be used against India, his frosty relations with then-acting ambassador to India, George Allen, meant that India’s concerns never actually reached Washington. Nehru’s concerns, later echoed by Lal Bahadur Shastri, turned out to be prescient. Pakistan used the weapons America had supplied to it during the 1965 war.

Besides the cold war considerations, Ahamed also reveals the degree to which cultural differences played a role in shaping relations. Nehru believed that America, being a powerful country, should have provided aid on its own to a newly independent nation. America believed that India should ask for aid and express gratitude. When Indira Gandhi, who became the prime minister of the country after Shastri’s death, visited Moscow and signed a joint communique criticising US policy in Vietnam, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration decided to penalise India. Johnson was sensitive to the needs of the poor—he had rolled out a set of initiatives he dubbed the ‘war on poverty’ in America—but didn’t believe in handouts. Johnson’s secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman, decided India had to adhere to the Treaty of Rome, which stipulated certain agricultural benchmarks in exchange for food aid. This was not the case before, where food aid was simply monitored by the USAID, the US embassy in Delhi, and few other Indians from the government. Instead, Johnson became personally involved and kept tabs on the shipments going out to India. At one point, when Johnson withheld grains, Indira Gandhi had to call and beg him so Indians would not starve.

At the same time, India, after having suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1962 war with China, and after having watched China conduct its nuclear test in 1964, wanted a UN-sponsored guarantee that it would be protected against the Chinese nuclear threat. But neither the US nor the Soviets committed to it. This was the origin of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), negotiations over which continued for decades to come.

By the 1990s, India had firmly moved away from the pacifism that had characterised Nehru’s foreign policy, and was committed to its nuclear programme. Even though successive US presidents tried talking India out of conducting nuclear tests, in 1998, after the BJP won the election, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the green light for conducting underground tests in Pokharan in Rajasthan, which infuriated the Bill Clinton administration. However, the Kargil war of 1999, where India received US sympathies, changed relations for the better. Clinton visited India in 2000, marking the first visit by an American president in 25 years.

Later, Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, after negotiations that spanned nearly all of Bush’s second term, signed the historic India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2005. The deal signalled something greater: India and the US were willing to shed their misgivings and distrust, and usher in a new era of relations.

However, even though the Bush administration had recognised India as a rising power, President Barack Obama, who took office in 2008, caught up with the country much later. In 2009, in a speech in Japan about the rising powers of Asia, for example, he didn’t mention India’s name, which hurt Indians. Obama was focused on managing the war in Afghanistan and bringing Pakistan under control. He knew China could help America since it could exert pressure on Pakistan but once he realised China wasn’t interested, Obama reverted to the pro-India policies of the Bush era. He told his team to look for ways in which the relationship could maximise the interests of both the countries.

With the China threat mounting, America assigned India the status of a major defence partner in 2016, clearly throwing its weight behind the country as a stabilising force in the Indo-Pacific region. In 2020, US officials signed a defence agreement with India in Delhi, just a week out from the US presidential election.

Nehru had envisioned India as a rising leader in Asia but was often disappointed by a lack of acknowledgment of the status he sought for the country. Maybe the time has come.