In late March 2000, Bill Clinton became the first president to visit India in over twenty-two years. At the core of his five-day stay was a brilliant speech to the Indian parliament that acknowledged India’s civilizational greatness, noted its economic and scientific progress, and praised India’s adherence to democratic norms. However, the speech tactfully set forth areas of American concern: Kashmir, India’s relations with Pakistan, and nuclear proliferation. These led Clinton to state that South Asia was the most dangerous place in the world, a characterization that was publicly contested by India’s President, K.R. Narayanan. During the trip, Clinton also signed a “Vision” document with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, committing both sides to an expanded government-to-government interaction. During a five-hour stopover in Pakistan Clinton also delivered a “tough-love” (encouraging but critical) television speech to the Pakistani people.
The visit was a triumph as far as images and symbols were concerned. Departing from his prepared speech to the Asia Society in New York on April 14, 2000, the Indian Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha, said that Clinton swept away fifty years of misperception, and that the two countries appeared to be on a path of realistic engagement. This may be true, but it took Clinton seven years to make a journey to South Asia. His was only the fourth presidential visit to India and the first in two decades. This suggests that the long history of strained relations between these two democracies is based upon more than misperceptions. This paper explores the possibility that major structural changes in the India-U.S. relationship are occurring, altering perceptions and policies in both Washington and New Delhi. This opens up a wider range of strategic choices for both countries, and the paper concludes with a discussion of American options concerning its relationship with India.