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India-US Ties | A game of diplomatic chess with deep-seated mutual suspicion

There is speculation that the way India and the US have been engaging each other was set to change after the intense bilateral activities throughout the new millennium. But the war in Ukraine has put paid to such hopes

September 23, 2022 / 09:45 AM IST
Representative image

Representative image

The dust-up between India and the United States last week over supplying military equipment to Pakistan points to a chronic lack of maturity in India-US relations. Such periodic outbursts also call into question assertions all round that Washington’s relations with Islamabad are no longer a zero-sum game vis-a-vis New Delhi.

The most recent brouhaha which erupted in New Delhi and Washington involving Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistan Army General Headquarters, was not the first in the two friendly capitals which claim to nurture a valuable friendship. Nor will it be the last.

Every time someone very important in the labyrinthine Washington bureaucracy considers it necessary to bring New Delhi in line over some key issue or other — and there are always any number of discordant notes in the relationship — the Pakistan card is drummed up out of nowhere. The twin provocations for the new US maintenance package for Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 planes are: India’s neutrality in the war in Ukraine, and the Narendra Modi government’s unwillingness to go along with the Joe Biden administration’s latest attempts to pressurise Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

Reciprocally, India has not been averse to playing diplomatic chess in exactly the same way with the US to extract benefits, or to deflect Washington’s policies which are not in New Delhi’s strategic interests. In the early 1990s, India came under intense pressure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Confident of its global hegemony following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US administration of George HW Bush, made the “capping, roll-back and elimination” of India’s nuclear programme its primary non-proliferation objective, and mobilised support for it in a plurilateral manner. With a weak economy among his many albatrosses, the newly-elected Prime Minister in 1991, PV Narasimha Rao, had his back against the wall on the non-proliferation issue.

One afternoon in 1992, journalists covering foreign affairs — a small number at that time — were summoned to South Block, seat of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). There, then Foreign Secretary JN Dixit announced a package of Indian assistance to Cuba. The exercise was a puzzle because, under normal circumstances, an aid package for Cuba was not something the Foreign Secretary would deign to announce. It could be left to MEA’s Official Spokesman or at best, to the Joint Secretary in charge of Latin America. Dixit cleared up the mystery when he told the reporters off-the-record after his press conference that the idea behind aiding Cuba at that point was to needle Washington.


With the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and a precipitous decline in Moscow’s status as a superpower, the Bush administration’s assumption was that Fidel Castro’s Cuba would collapse in months — a feat that decades of US sanctions against Havana could not achieve. Rao and Dixit calculated that India’s move to be a White Knight to Castro would annoy the US and get it off India’s back on nuclear non-proliferation. India’s efforts to rescue Cuba were definitely taken note of in Washington, but for the crusaders for discriminatory global disarmament there, capping and rolling back India’s nuclear programme was a much bigger issue then that Castro’s fate.

In late 2005, the landmark India-US nuclear deal came under a cloud amidst internal, bureaucratic reservations in the George W Bush administration on a host of issues involving India’s right to preserve its nuclear options. The negotiations on the deal reached a stalemate. In a risky, but clever calculation, India opted for neutrality on Iran, which had just begun producing uranium hexafluoride at its Isfahan facility. New Delhi’s actions carried weight as it was on the IAEA’s Board of Governors. The US expressed its readiness soon enough during negotiations with India to be flexible on the terms for its nuclear deal. As a quid pro quo, unstated of course, India voted along with the US at the IAEA Board to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. That decision enabled Washington to finally get its teeth into Tehran, and significantly undercut Iran in its long cat-and-mouse game with the international community on its nuclear transgressions.

There have been numerous such examples of the US and India playing games with each other since Indira Gandhi started halting, sputtering efforts to improve relations with Washington following her meeting with President Ronald Reagan in Cancun in October 1981. In private conversations, Americans, who matter on dealings with India through many decades, are often candid that there is a pervasive lack of maturity in how New Delhi handles Washington, and vice versa. They attribute this to the absence of a durable Indian vision on how its US relationship must evolve over the long term. Indians, on the other hand, insist that in Washington’s efforts as a superpower to juggle its needs and priorities —  such as periodic appeasement of Pakistan — New Delhi is only handed out sops and very little else of any enduring value. Even China, they say privately, has got more out of the US in five decades than what India has got over a longer period.

This is not the case — and has never been — in India’s dealings with Russia. Nor does India engage France in such a manner: both sides clearly know where they stand with each other, and there is considerably more frankness in mutual interactions, according to those who have handled India’s relations with all the Big Five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

There is speculation that the way India and the US have been engaging each other was set to change after the intense bilateral activities throughout the new millennium. But the war in Ukraine has put paid to such hopes.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.
first published: Sep 23, 2022 09:39 am
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