It would be unwise to expect too much from President Obama’s coming visit to India. Indians were delighted when Obama became the first black President of the US. Yet, we are now obliged to be more sober.
Indians instinctively tend to prefer US Democrats to Republicans. But Republican Presidents have generally been better for India than Democratic ones. Democratic Presidents have generally been far tougher on India with regard to nuclear issues and Kashmir, and far more protectionist in economic relations.
President Clinton charmed many during his visit to India. But what did he actually do for India?
To Clinton’s credit, he pressured Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Pakistani forces and end the Kargil War of 1999. But this was because he wanted to avert nuclear war, not because he was pro-India or anti-Pakistan. Indeed his foreign policy tended to equate India and Pakistan. He did no more than slap Pakistan on the wrist for aiding terrorism in Kashmir. He was willing to collaborate with the Taliban on building a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Coincidentally, India’s IT industry rose meteorically. Major powers, including China, stopped regarding India as a chaotic, poor country begging for aid, and instead acknowledged it as a rising economic power. Soon, Indian GDP accelerated to over 9%, and it became a global R&D hub and major exporter of brain-intensive manufactures (autos, pharmaceuticals).
President Bush was quick to spot the strategic implications. He saw that India had the potential to become a major economic power, along with democratic values and a common interest with the US in combating Islamic terrorism. Further, he could see that China would within three decades become a mighty economic and military power, throwing its weight around in Asia.
He abandoned the decades-old US policy of hyphenating India and Pakistan in foreign affairs, and forcing India to sign the NPT. Instead, to the dismay of powerful lobbies in the US, he expended a huge amount of political capital—at a time of diminishing popularity—to pushing through exemption for India from US laws on non-proliferation, and persuading the Nuclear Suppliers Group to sell nuclear equipment to India even though it was not a signatory to NPT. This was justified by the Bush vision that India needed to be cultivated as a long-range strategic partner of unrivalled importance in the Asian region.