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India’s American Relations

NEW DELHI – With America’s presidential election looming, perhaps its most striking aspect from an Indian point of view is that no one in New Delhi is unduly concerned about the outcome. There is now a broad consensus in Indian policymaking circles that, whoever wins, India-United States relations are more or less on the right track.

Democrats and Republicans alike have both been responsible for this development. President Barack Obama’s successful visit to India in 2010, and his historic speech to a joint session of Parliament, capped the most significant recent milestone in bilateral relations. This was one of many encounters that Obama has had with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in various forums since taking office, often in multilateral summits like the G-20, and it consolidated the new relationship that has emerged from a decade of dramatic change.

Throughout the Cold War, the world’s oldest democracy and its largest were essentially estranged. America’s initial indifference was best reflected in President Harry Truman’s reaction when Chester Bowles asked to be named ambassador to India: “I thought India was pretty jammed with poor people and cows round streets, witch doctors, and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges…but I did not realize anybody thought it was important.”

If that was bad, India’s political orientation was worse. The American preference for making anti-communist allies, however unsavory, tied Washington to Pakistan’s increasingly Islamist dictatorship, while India’s non-aligned democracy drifted toward the secular Soviet embrace. The US government regarded non-alignment with distaste; Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, notoriously declared that “neutrality between good and evil is itself evil.” In a world divided between two uncompromising superpowers, India’s temporizing seemed like appeasement at best, and aid and comfort for the enemy at worst.