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Foreign Affairs | A brief history of US Presidents in India.

Date: 24-02-2020
Subject: Foreign Affairs | A brief history of US Presidents in India
KP Nayar

This article is the change in United States-India ties. Even as recently as 20 years ago, no editor would have asked a reporter to write on American presidential visits to India because they were few and far between. When then US President Bill Clinton came to India in March 2000, the view in Washington and in New Delhi was a variation of the adage that ‘one swallow does not make summer.’

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, who had by then retired from active politics, told this author in a private conversation a few days before Clinton’s arrival in New Delhi that the soon-to-be lame duck US President, nearing the end of his second and final term, was looking for personal business, post-retirement. Emerging India was a choice he was making as a potential super lobbyist in the US and across the world in the years to follow.

To start with, Clinton himself was not interested in a visit to India in his final year in the White House. It was the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea, who prevailed upon the 42nd US President to go to India. Hillary acknowledges as much in her book, Living History.

However, once the President decided that he will make the trip, he took the US-India relationship firmly into his hands. That is Bill Clinton’s nature. He was gifted with the intellect and a vision that was necessary to change engagement between Washington and New Delhi forever. What we are witnessing today in the bilateral ties is a process which was set in motion by Clinton’s visit 20 years ago.

His lasting contribution to relations with India was a dramatic change in America’s Kashmir policy, jettisoning United Nation resolutions on Kashmir for the first time. In an interview to Peter Jennings of ABC News in New Delhi on March 21, 2000, Clinton was specifically asked about UN resolutions.

His answer: “Well, there have been a lot of changes since 1948, including what happened in 1971 and a number of things since. What I support is — I support some process by which the Kashmiris’ legitimate grievances are addressed, and I support respecting the Line of Control. And I think the Pakistanis and the Indians have to have some way of talking about it.” A long history of trust deficit between India and the US was bridged by Clinton, laying the foundations for a new relationship.

The first US President to visit India was Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. That the 60th anniversary of his visit was extensively commemorated in Washington even after six long decades was a wistful recall of what could have been in US-India ties, had two more presidential visits that followed Eisenhower’s not been monumental disasters.

Richard Nixon’s whistle stop in New Delhi in 1969 was hardly a visit. Its duration was not even one full day and the aim was only to find out if Nixon could reduce the distrust between him and Indira Gandhi, and do something about the growing acrimony between the US President and the Prime Minister. When Nixon sent the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy to the Bay of Bengal two years later, supporting the military in East Pakistan and threatening India, any chance of better ties with America ended, not only within the Indira Gandhi government, but also in the hearts of the Indian people.

Jimmy Carter came next in 1978, but the “open mike” incident put paid to any chance of reviving the bilateral ties. As he was waiting for a public reception to begin in New Delhi, Carter, without realising that the microphone on his table was open, told his Secretary of State that they should send a “cold and blunt message” about India’s nuclear options when they got back to Washington. It was heard by all. Carter virtually made ties with India hostage to the country signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a red rag to successive Indian governments.

I once asked Yahswant Sinha when he emerged from meeting George W Bush why the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s opposition to the Iraq war, trade issues and host of disagreements with America had not dampened the 43rd President’s enthusiasm for India. The then External Affairs Minister attributed it to Bush’s personality. “The President has concluded that India is a good country. Whatever we do now, he will not change his mind. I think he is like that.”

Bush contributed immensely to making bilateral ties with India functional. So much so that Americans used to joke about the US-India nuclear deal that India got the nuclear bomb while America got mangoes, a reference to an agreement that allowed Indian mangoes into the US under the Bush administration.

Barack Obama, the only White House occupant to make two visits to India, was one President whom India could not manipulate. An intellectual with firm beliefs, Obama, however, made concessions to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, committed proponent of better relations with New Delhi. Yet the bilateral relations hit a plateau during Obama’s presidency.

Eisenhower was prophetic when he told a joint session of both Houses of Parliament that the welfare of America is linked to the welfare of India. It may have appeared to be hyperbole then, but it is true today than ever before.

Donald Trump is a US President who is unlike any of his predecessors since India gained Independence. Trump has scant regard for strategy, protocol or conventions. He is entirely guided by instinct and has so far been good at that. Whether ties with India will be catapulted by his visit will be a family decision. In addition to the First Lady, the President’s daughter and son-in-law are travelling with him in their official capacities. The future lies in what they tell Trump after the visit.

Source: moneycontrol.com

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