From sanctions in 1998 to strategic, defence cooperation in 2021, how ties evolved

In 1998, shortly after Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister, India conducted its second set of nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan. The result was a freeze in ties with the US, which imposed economic sanctions against India.

The impact of the sanctions wasn't much, as, apart from Japan, no other country imposed total economic sanctions. However, many countries like Australia, New Zealand, and some European nations also suspended aid and credit lines. But, since big countries like France, the UK and Russia didn't impose sanctions, the US intent on isolating India wasn't realised. Also, India's newly liberalised economy was in the 'India Shining' phase. A year later, the Taliban hijacked an Indian Airlines flight, IC-814, with 176 passengers on board, demanding the release of three of its men from Indian prisons. After the slaying of Rupen Katyal, a passenger returning from his honeymoon in Kathmandu, Indian authorities had little choice but to accept the demand and release Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Masood Azhar.

Two years later, the 9/11 bombings hit the US and shocked the world. It later turned out that Sheikh was involved in sending funds for these bombings. He was also reportedly involved in the kidnapping and execution of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Masood Azhar, who founded the Jaish-e-Muhammad, is connected with the Indian Parliament attack (2001) and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai (2008), in which six US citizens lost their lives.

The 9/11 attacks made the US realise that India was a victim to terror as much as they were. It was an early step towards strengthening a relationship, which is now elevated to a Comprehensive Global Stragetic Partnership, a tie that President Joe Biden calls the defining relationship of the 21st century. The turnover wasn't sudden, but it was steady.

The two countries formed a joint working group on counter-terrorism in January 2000. Then president Bill Clinton visited India a few months later—an early indicator of a change in heart for the US. It paved way for the subsequent India-US Civil Nuclear Deal, which was forged during the tenure of Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush (2007). Since Clinton, every US president has visited India. Barack Obama came twice. Given the wary relationship between the two nations in the past, with India's close Soviet ties and the US's close Pakistan ties, the rate of acceleration in the bilateral relations is rather remarkable.

The US supported India in getting memberships into elite nuclear clubs—Australia Group, Wassenar Arrangement and Missile Technology Control Regime. It strongly supports India's membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group too. The US stood by India in getting Azhar proscribed by the United Nations Security Council, till China too buckled in 2019.

India has found a new defence and strategic partner in the US, having signed all foundational defence pacts—COMCASA, LEMOA, BECA. Now that the US believes India is a responsible player and has accepted India's 'no first use' nuclear policy, the US is actively wooing India to counter its own headache in the region—China. Though reluctant initially, India has finally embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, allowing it to slowly upgrade from the level of joint secretaries to a head of government level summit. The first such physical summit could happen this month, subject to pandemic developments. The US changed the name of its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, recognising the importance of South Asia, specially India, in the region.

Even as defence and strategic cooperation between the two countries are growing stronger, there remain points of divergence. India's independent foreign policy, especially friendship with Russia and Iran, is one such irritant. The Russian friendship is under a bit of a strain with the deep defence ties with the US now. India stopped importing crude from Iran when former US president Donald Trump decided to throw away the Iran civil nuclear deal and sanction the nation. India is trying hard to balance its ties with Iran, though the going is not easy, with Iran removing India from many of its joint projects.

The US economic sanctions of 1998 did not hit India much, since there was little trade India had with the US then. The volumes of trade have risen largely in the two decades, but it is lopsided and the balance is in India's favour. Trump was particularly peeved over this imbalance, and the two have not worked out a trade deal yet. India, on the other hand, finds it irksome every time US lawmakers get into a tizzy over perceived human rights violations here. The US government has realised India's touchiness over commenting on India's internal matters, and usually refrains from commenting. With Trump, that worked. With Biden, it may not be so easy. Bilaterals are always a work in progress; this, too, is no different.