PM Modi’s visit to the US — his 7th since he took office — comes at a time when both nations are looking to deepen strategic ties in the face of a belligerent China and work together to help the world combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shaped by geostrategic challenges, trade and people-to-people ties, the relationship between India and US has been on the upswing for the last few years.
Even though the world’s largest and second-largest democracies have shared solid long-standing ties over the years, there have also been some bilateral and trade irritants here and there.
Here are 20 significant moments which have defined India-US ties over the years …
1949: Cold War shapes ties
On October 13, 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made his first visit to the US and held talks with President Harry S Truman.
The trip came shortly before India formally proclaimed neutrality in the developing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Eventually, it took a leadership role within the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM).
India’s decision set the tone for its ties with the US throughout the Cold War, creating constraints within the relationship, as well as the opportunity for amity between Delhi and Moscow.
President Truman receives Jawaharlal Nehru in US. (Photo credit: Abbie Rowe)
1959: Gandhian ties and first presidential visit
In February, 1959, Martin Luther King Jr — the face of America’s civil rights movement — arrived in India for a month-long tour after being inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He met PM Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi’s family and scholars. He drew heavily on the Gandhian idea of nonviolence in his activism.
Later that year, Dwight Eisenhower became the first serving US president to visit India. He met his counterpart President Rajendra Prasad as well as PM Nehru.
1962: India-China war
When the war broke out between India and China after border tensions, PM Nehru sought help from the US. While America did not immediately rush to India’s assistance, it did recognise the McMahon line as the border.
According to some accounts, Nehru had sought military assistance from then-President John F Kennedy during the war. But shortly after the request, China declared a unilateral ceasefire.
1971: India-Pakistan war
India’s ties with US were severed during its 1971 war with Pakistan when Washington decided to back Islamabad.
The then Nixon administration saw Pakistan as a key to counter the Soviet Union’s influence in South Asia.
Meanwhile, India received support from the Soviet and also signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the bloc, in a sharp deviation from its previous position of non-alignment.
After the war ended with India’s victory and the creation of Bangladesh, Washington accepted the new balance of power and recognised New Delhi as a dominant player in the region.
Ties between India and US were strained in the late 1970s when the Jimmy Carter administration enacted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act.
The Act required countries like India to allow inspections of all nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. After India refused, Washington ended all nuclear assistance to New Delhi.
In 1982, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the US to meet then-President Ronald Reagan and improve the strained relationship.
The leaders agreed on increasing cooperation and resolving the dispute over nuclear power.
1984: Bhopal tragedy
A toxic gas and chemical leak at US-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant in Bhopal led to the deaths of thousands.
India sought the extradition of the company’s CEO for criminal prosecution but failed.
Social activists camp in Bhopal to seek increased compensation for victims of Bhopal gas leak, in 1994
The tragedy, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, dealt a severe blow to India-US business ties and continued to complicate the bilateral relationship for many years that followed.
1991: Economic reforms
After the end of the Cold War and India ushering in economic reforms, the bilateral ties between the two nations saw a renewed thrust.
The liberalisation of 1991 enabled US-India economic relations to grow with American companies eventually entering into the local market.
1998: India’s nuclear tests
India-US ties headed into choppy waters again after New Delhi surprised the American intelligence agencies by completing a series of underground nuclear ties in Pokhran, near the Pakistan border.
The third nuclear blast site in Pokhran. (Reuters)
The tests badly hit bilateral ties and triggered fears of a regional nuclear arms race.
Former US President Bill Clinton retaliated by imposing economic sanctions and recalled the US ambassador to India.
1999: Kargil war
India and Pakistan forces clashed again, this time in Kargil, in their fourth such armed conflict.
On July 4, 1991, then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington meet US President Bill Clinton and obtain American support.
President Bill Clinton, however, asked Sharif to immediately pull out all Pakistani troops from Kargil and rebuked him from engaging in nuclear brinkmanship.
2000: Thaw in ties
A year after the Kargil conflict, Clinton became the first US President to visit India since 1978.
The visit was seen as a sign of rapprochement as ties had soured following the nuclear tests.
Bill Clinton shakes hands with late former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee after addressing a joint session of Indian Parliament in New Delhi during his visit in 2000. (Reuters)
Later in 2001, then-President George W Bush’s administration lifted all remaining US sanctions that were imposed on India after its 1998 nuclear test.
Most economic sanctions had been eased within a few months of their imposition, and US Congress authorized the president to remove all remaining restrictions in 1999.
2005: New defence framework
In a major boost to defence ties, both nations signed the new framework for the US-India Defence Relationship, setting the priorities for cooperation in maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and counterterrorism.
Later that year, the countries signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, a framework that lifted a three-decade US moratorium on nuclear energy trade with India.
Under the agreement, India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place all its civil resources under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
2008: 26/11 and cooperation against terror
India received strong support from US after Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists carried out a series of attacks in Mumbai, killing nearly 300 people.
US worked closely with Indian authorities in the aftermath of 26/11, sending FBI investigators and forensics experts. In 2011, US issued arrest warrants for four Pakistani men as suspects in the attack.
Photographers run past burning Taj Mahal Hotel during the Mumbai terror attack. The incident paved the way for increased India-US cooperation on terror. (Reuters)
In 2012, US announced a bounty of $10 million on LeT leader Hafeez Saeed for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
It also arrested American-Pakistan spy David Headley, who had conspired in plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.
2010: First strategic dialogue
US and India formally convened the first strategic dialogue in 2010. A high-ranking delegation of Indian officials visited Washington DC and the Obama administration lauded India as an indispensable partner.
In November, Barack Obama visited India and supported New Delhi’s long-held bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
However, trade concerns around access to Indian markets and issues surrounding civil nuclear cooperation cloud the talks.
Obama and Manmohan Singh during a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. (Reuters)
2014: Diplomatic row
A row over the arrest of a junior Indian diplomat in New York, Devyani Khobragade, pushed relations between the world’s biggest democracies to their lowest ebb in more than a decade.
Khobragade’s high-profile arrest over visa fraud and strip search had triggered a major uproar in India
Then US ambassador to India Nancy Powell had to resign in the wake of the dispute.
2014: The Modi era
Months after the diplomatic row subsided, Narendra Modi stormed to power at the Centre following a landslide victory. President Obama congratulated Modi and invited him to the White House, effectively reversing an earlier visa ban which was imposed after the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Later, in September, Modi made his first high-profile visit to the US as Prime Minister and held grand events, including a sold-out speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In Washington, Modi and Obama reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding between the Export-Import Bank and an Indian energy agency.
PM Modi addresses supporters alongside actor Hugh Jackman during the Global Citizen Festival concert in Central Park in New York. (Reuters)
2016: Major defence partner
Before exiting the White House, Obama hosted PM Modi again at the White House and elevated India to a major defence partner – a status no other nation holds.
This paved the way for India to enjoy some of the benefits of being a US treaty ally, such as access to defence technology. In a speech before Congress a day later, PM Modi celebrates India’s growing diplomatic and economic ties with US. Two months later, the United States and India sign an agreement on deeper military cooperation after nearly a decade of negotiations.
2018: Boost to defence ties
At the first-ever two-plus-two dialogue in New Delhi, then secretary of state Mike Pompeo and secretary of defence Jim Mattis signed an agreement with Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman.
The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) gave India access to advanced communication technology used in US defence equipment and allowed real-time information sharing between the two countries.
India and US held their first two-plus-two dialogue in September, 2018 (Reuters)
2019: Trade wrinkles boil over
Trade ties took a hit again after Donald Trump ended India’s preferential status, which allowed products from the country to enter American markets duty-free.
Trump took the decision as India did not provide “equitable and reasonable access” to its own markets. In retaliation, India slapped tariffs on 28 US products.
PM Modi and Donald Trump at the mega “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, Texas. (Reuters)
However, the trade disputed took a temporary backseat when PM Modi visited the US in October for the massive ‘Howdy, Modi’ event in Texas. He addressed a jam-packed rally of 50,000 supporters.
2020: Trump’s first visit
Months after ‘Howdy, Modi’, India hosted Donald Trump for his first visit as US President and organised a mega Namaste Trump event.
The event, held at a cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, was attended by over 1 lakh people.
However, a possible “mini-trade” deal between India and US to iron out differences remained elusive as both sides failed to reach an agreement.
Former President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and PM Modi attend the “Namaste Trump” event at Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in Ahmedabad. (Reuters)
The visit also took place in the backdrop of the anti-CAA riots in the national capital. Trump, however, refrained from publicly mentioning the violence or the contentious citizenship law that triggered it.
2020: The BECA agreement
At the third two-plus-two dialogue, India and US signed an intelligence-sharing pact called The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement or BECA.
It was the last of the four foundational military agreements signed by both countries over the past two decades and allowed for the sharing of sensitive geospatial data to boost the accuracy of Indian drones and cruise missiles.
Both the countries also spoke about their commitment to keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open amid rising Chinese dominance in the region.
(With inputs from Council on Foreign Relations)