There had been a “little bit of retreat, little bit of backsliding” in US-India relations under the Obama administration, noted Mitchell Reiss, an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, last week. He emphasised that a Romney administration would “restore” relations. These comments provide fodder for the view that Republican presidents have generally been better than Democratic ones. This narrative, however, does not really hold up.
Given how often one hears the assessment that Republican presidents are better for India, it is easy to forget how recent this belief is. Historically, the opposite view has been held, with many in India cheering when Democrats won. There was more support for India among Democrats through the 1960s, but backing for India was not restricted to one side of the aisle. Republicans like President Eisenhower came to support India, especially in its development race against China. Republicans in the Congress also joined Democratic presidents in passing aid legislation for India. In the narrative of US-India relations, however, credit for any bonhomie was given to Democrats. Policymakers like John F. Kennedy and Chester Bowles were considered heroes in the pantheon of US-India relations, while Republicans like John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon were seen as villains.
The more recent contention that Republican presidents are better for India can be traced to the perception that the Clinton administration, for years, emphasised non-proliferation above all else in its relations with India and to the landmark India-US nuclear deal signed under the Bush administration. For about the last decade and a half, however, three different presidents have proclaimed that a strong relationship with India is in US interests. Barack Obama has not shown any sign that he is “anti-India.” Some have pointed to his rhetoric about Bangalore and the invocation of India in campaign ads attacking Romney on the issue of outsourcing. These ads, however, are not generated because the administration is anti-India or wants to limit US-India economic ties, but because certain aspects of Romney’s business background appear to make him vulnerable. Neither an Obama nor a Romney administration will make policy on the basis of whether its key policymakers are anti- or pro-India. In both cases, policy will be based on the perception of US interests and India’s role in helping achieve them.
Regardless of which party wins later this year, major agreements like the nuclear deal are unlikely to be repeated. Even if a potential Romney administration makes concessions to India of the kind made under the nuclear deal, they are likely to come with higher expectations. Republicans have based their support of India on certain assumptions: shared democratic values, shared interests, especially vis-a-vis China, and the potential of India as a market for American capital and goods. If India is not seen to cooperate with the US on the last two fronts, Republican policymakers are likely to question the value of India.
A change in administration is not a pre-requisite for change to occur. The Clinton administration’s approach toward India, for example, changed over time. The Bush administration, which came to office emphasising the need to prioritise India, spent considerable time building a relationship with Pakistan. Earlier Indian complaints that the Obama administration was building relations with China at the expense of India have been subdued by the declaration of a US “pivot” to Asia. Evolving strategic circumstances can change an administration’s priorities. Changes in personnel or positions when a president gets re-elected can also bring in people with different backgrounds, worldviews and styles.
In Washington today, there is support for a strong relationship with India across party aisles. The major task ahead is to maintain the momentum and follow through on the various agreements reached under the last three administrations — which will require effort on both sides, regardless of who wins the elections. This approach does not preclude significant change; it may indeed lay the basis for it.