Frank F. Islam
State of India & USA Relations: Past, Present and Future
Distinguished Guests; Friends; Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you very much for that wonderful introduction. I appreciate your kind words.
Thank you for your warm welcome and your hospitality
It is truly an honor to be here with all of you and thank you Udai and Pradeep Mehta for bringing us together.
Thank you, Mr. Menon and other distinguished guests, for joining us today.
I also want to express my deep gratitude to Pradeep Mehta for inviting to serve on the CUTS advisory board alongside so many illustrious individuals. It is truly an honor.
Before I make my formal remarks, let me state for the record that I do not speak on behalf of any organization or agency of the US government. My comments are made as a private citizen of the United States. I mention that, because I have served on advisory boards of US government departments in the past.
Let me also state that I am here to speak not as a geopolitical expert, not as an international relations scholar, not as an economist, but as a civically engaged Indian American business person whose motherland is India and whose homeland is the United States of America. I love both countries and recognize that they are by far the two largest democracies in the world and that the future of these democracies is central to the future of democracies and democratic values.
I recognize that neither the U.S. nor India is perfect -far from it. But I believe that if these two great countries can cooperate and form the right kind of strategic relations on matters of all types, they can be the standard bearers and standard setters improving the lives of the citizens in their respective countries and collaborating to make the world a better and fairer place.
That is my perspective. Now, let me turn to the heart of the matter, my thoughts on the State of India-U.S. relations: Past, Present and Future.
For purposes of this talk, I have divided the Past State of those relations into two periods from 1945 to 1990 and from 1990 through 2016. I have classified the Present State as the period for the Trump presidency in the United States – which as of this moment – is from 2017 through 2020. And, I look at the Future State from 2021 going forward.
In my remarks, I will present a historical overview of the past, a snapshot of the present, and my top-line assessment for the future. I must admit this is a daunting task as it would take volumes and volumes to give these relations a full and proper treatment.
I am aware that many of you are extremely knowledgeable and intimately familiar with the history of US-India relations. Therefore, I will not go into detail on the Past State. Instead, I will highlight some important historical issues and background and concentrate the bulk of my attention on the Present and Future states. My goal is to provide the proper context for our distinguished panel to carry forward the discussion.
1947 to 1990: The Fledgling Relationship between India and the U.S.
That said, let me begin by examining the years from 1947 to 1990. I have labeled that period The Fledgling Relationship between India and the U.S.
When India became independent in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, the US-led bloc of democratic nations and the USSR-led communist bloc were vying for influence globally.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to pursue an independent foreign policy formed a group of nations called the Non-Aligned Movement. New Delhi called itself a “non-aligned” nation but in reality, it tilted toward Moscow. Because of this the India and the U.S. were essentially indifferent to each other.
There was cooperation in several fields such as higher education and agriculture but relations were not great politically. The ties reached their lowest during the 1970s. This was primarily due to three issues.
- The first issue was the India-Pakistan war over the Bangladesh liberation with India supporting Bangladesh and the U.S. supporting Pakistan.
- The second issue that resulted in the escalation of the tensions between India and the United States was India’s detonation of nuclear bombs in 1974.
- The third issue was the growing economic nationalism in India throughout the 1970s which saw the nationalization of some sectors of the economy and forcing American companies such as Coco Cola and IBM to close their India operations.
The late 1970s brought the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to make South Asia a theater in the Cold War. This increased America’s financial and military support to Pakistan. After the turbulent ‘70’s, relations between India and the U.S. were very quiet throughout the ‘80’s.
1990 through 2016: The Strengthening Relationship between India and the U.S.
Let me know turn to the period from 1990 to 2016 which I have labeled The Strengthening Relationship between India and the U.S. As you all know, relations between the two countries have improved dramatically since the 1990s.
There are many factors that have driven that improvement. I want to highlight three: the end of Cold War; the liberalization of India’s economy and the growing influence of the Indian American community. I will analyze each of these factors briefly.
- The end of the cold war meant that New Delhi had to build a better relationship with Washington and it began doing so. The rise of China over the past decade and one half has accelerated that relationship development. And, the U.S. India Civil Nuclear Agreement constructed during the Bush administration and the tenures of Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Singh signaled a new direction in US-India relations which has been built upon since U.S. India Nuclear Deal was signed in 2008.
- The India economy was liberalized in 1991 in response to an acute financial crisis. Because of that liberalization, American businesses flocked to India. Those businesses have used their economic, political and financial might to improve the U.S. relations with India.
- The Indian American community has grown exponentially both in numbers and influence since the 1990’s. The game-changer for Indian immigration was the high-tech revolution of the 1990s. Thanks to the H-1B visas, more than a million Indians have immigrated to the United States in the past 25 years.
Over the years, those immigrants have become permanent residents of the United States and citizens, and thus part of the US political system. They began making campaign donations, voting for candidates of their choice and lobbying for their elected representatives. They have become a powerful and vocal lobbying force advocating for better relations with India.
2017 -2021: The Erratic Relationship between India and the U.S.
Those are the three factors that contributed substantially to the strengthening of India and U.S. relations between 1990 to the end of 2016. That brings me to the present – the time period from January 20, 2017 when Donald Trump took office as the President until his first term is scheduled to be completed on January 20 in 2021.
I have labeled this period the Erratic Relationship between India and the U.S. I struggled with what to name the relationship. Other words that came to mind included: unilateral, chaotic, and isolationist.
I selected erratic not because it applies just to U.S. India relations but because I believe it fairly characterizes all relations – both international and in the United States – during the Trump presidency.
Nothing is for certain. Everything is dependent on the mood and understanding of Donald Trump. There is no art to the deal. It is all about getting it your way and winning. Collaboration and compromise are dirty words.
Even though there had been much progress and considerable strengthening of India-U.S. relations over the past decade, there were still several serious issues on which the United States and India had their differences when Donald Trump became President.
India’s relations with Iran, which is an enemy of America, is one such issue. Similarly, US-Pakistan relations are seen with skepticism in India. Though the United States has been tough on Pakistan since 9/11, New Delhi thinks Washington can and should do more to fight terrorism.
India has been unhappy over the US restrictions on H-1B visas, which has affected Indian IT companies doing business in the United States. Under the Trump administration, life has become even tougher for these firms.
The slow pace of economic reform in India continues to frustrate American businesses. A lot was expected from Prime Minister Modi, but he has failed to live up to expectations so far. Much to the disappointment of American businesses, he has not replicated the success he had in Gujarat at the national level.
Even in the best of times, Washington has been unhappy over protectionism, weak intellectual property rights and lack of market access to US companies in India. But the protectionist debate has taken a new turn with America itself turning protectionist under President Trump.
The victory of Trump in the 2016 presidential election has had a disruptive effect on America’s ties with India. I should note though that the degree of disruption has been much less, compared to the US ties with some other traditional allies such as Germany and Canada.
Even though Trump campaigned on an America First domestic and foreign policy, India placed high hopes on the incoming president. In fact, India was one of the few countries that was cautiously optimistic about Trump in January 2017.
Prime Minister Modi had a positive visit to Washington during Trump’s first year in office. And Modi seems to have gotten along well with Trump. However, subsequently not much has been accomplished. This is true in all areas but it is especially true in terms of trade relations.
One of the continuing successes in India-US relations has been the ever-growing trade in goods. Last year the bilateral trade topped $73 billion. In my opinion, though India and the U.S. are punching way below their weight on trade. Nonetheless, considering where things were, that is an impressive number. In 1991, the year India initiated liberalization, the bilateral trade was a little over $5 billion.
I know that one of CUTS objectives is to “bolster U.S.-India economic relations to achieve the target of $500 billion.” Based upon the research I have reviewed, I think that is a realistic and achievable target within the next decade. Given the erratic nature of the current relationship, however, I do not expect much progress to be made toward that goal over the next two years.
Having said that my council, is to not give up hope but to work diligently to set the stage for accelerated progress in the next decade. As I said in an article published in the press here in India in November of last year, “India must stay the course in its trade relations with the U.S. It must keep cool, keep calm and carry on. By doing so, it will make itself a winner and bring the U.S. along with it.”
2021 Going Forward: The Partnership Relationship between India and the U.S.
Although I do not believe India’s persistence will pay off in the next two years. I am confident it will pay off big time in the next decade. That is why I have labeled the period from 2021 going forward as the Partnership Relationship between India and the U.S.
I believe that is right label not as an optimist but as a realist who because of my personal history and bifocal view as an Indian American can see beyond today’s murkiness. Let me elaborate on that.
In the years since I came to the United States, I have seen India-U.S. relations at their worst and I have seen them get much better. In my early years in the United States, I watched from a distance, the Bangladesh Liberation War and the subsequent India-Pakistan war.
The US establishment support and American popular opinion were against India. That was followed by the nationalization of the key sectors of the economy by Prime Minister Gandhi and India’s first successful nuclear tests in Pokhran 1974. Again, they were not popular in the United States. Believe me, it was not an easy time to be an Indian student in the United States in the 1970s.
Fast forward to January 2015: When President Obama visited New Delhi, as the chief guest at India’s 66th Republic Day celebration, I was part of the US business delegation that accompanied him. I witnessed firsthand the love the Indian public expressed for the American President. A year and a half later, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington to address a joint session of the US Congress, I was there to witness that warm welcome also.
Given this, I have no doubt that the Indian-U.S. ties will continue to grow, despite the isolationist and protectionist policies of the Trump administration. Trump and Trumpism will not alter America’s DNA permanently.
What makes me think this and that the future of the bilateral relations will be bright? The reasons are the same factors and driving forces that I spelled out for the improvement of ties since the 1990s:
- Our shared democratic values and common geopolitical interests. As I mentioned earlier, it was geopolitical interests that drove the United States and India closer at the beginning of this millennium. The two countries will continue to share a bond, as pluralistic democracies with shared values and goals.
- Trade and commerce: Trade and commerce have always been powerful forces that brought societies and countries together. As I said, I think $500 billion in terms of U.S. India trade is imminently doable. Some experts have even predicted that US-India trade could touch the trillion-dollar mark by 2030.
- The presence of the ever-growing and influential Indian American community. By the time the next US Census takes place, the Indian American population will have crossed the four-million mark. Additionally, several hundred thousand Indian immigrants are waiting to become permanent residents of the United States and eventually US citizens.
During his historic visit to India in November 2010, President Barack Obama declared that, “We are two free market economies where people have the freedom to pursue ideas and innovation that can change the world.” Obama continued to state, “ And, that’s why I believe that India and America are indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.”
I agree with President Obama’s viewpoint and that is why I have labeled the period from 2021 going forward as The Partnership Relationship time for India and the U.S. I also understand that the future is promised to no-one. India and the U.S. must work together to earn that label and that future.
This session and the work of CUTS is testimony to the fact that the work is underway. Thanks to CUTS for allowing me to make a small contribution to that process.
I look forward to hearing the panel and to gaining new insights that can be employed to create the best possible relationship between the U.S. and India. After that, I look forward to working with all of you in the future to construct an agenda for achieving that relationship.
In closing, thanks for listening to me and letting me share my thoughts with you. God bless you. God bless India and the United States.