India and the U.S., An Uncertain Future

Trump may be visiting India, but the U.S. is still overlooking India at its peril.

Naz El-Khatib

February 18, 2020

India and the U.S., An Uncertain Future
U.S. President Donald Trump and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit (Wikimedia)

ndia and America are natural allies...each seeing in the other a reflection of its own aspiration for a more humane and just world...That is why Americans admire India; why we welcome India's leadership in the region and the world; and why we want to take our partnership to a new level. — President Bill Clinton, Remarks to Joint Session of Parliament, 2000

India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States because we are brothers in the cause of human liberty...the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world. — President George W. Bush, New Delhi Address, 2006

India and the United States are not just natural partners. I believe America can be India’s best partner...the world will be a safer and a more just place when our two democracies — the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy — stand together. — President Barack Obama, Address to the People of India, New Delhi, 2015

President Donald Trump is visiting India next week — and the media is abuzz. The trip follows not long after last October’s Howdy Modi! spectacle, when Trump enthusiastically embraced India Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Texas. But for all the pomp and circumstance Trump’s first visit to India will generate, it will almost certainly fall into an all too predictable pattern. For decades, American presidents have voiced the highest of hopes for United States-India relations in remarks on their trips to India. But the hard truth — one shared with me multiple times in conversations for this piece — is that U.S. elected leaders and policymakers, in practice, tend to treat America’s relationship with India as a low-tier concern. 

Ignoring India is a serious mistake. India’s rise will be a defining event of the 21st century, almost by default, given that the country in 2050 will house almost as many people as China and the U.S. combined. For this reason, among others, no other countries but India and China can hope to rival and perhaps one day even exceed U.S. power and influence in the coming decades. But while American leaders are remaking U.S. foreign policy largely to manage China's rise, India has remained an afterthought in U.S. policy-making and the national consciousness.

That is especially jarring because how India becomes the superpower it appears destined to be will have a tremendous impact on American values. The rising tide of the Modi government’s anti-democratic, anti-pluralist actions — seemingly geared towards rewriting India as a Hindu nation — has forced us to ask whether the country’s enormous, inclusive, ‘raucous’ democracy has the strength to recover and endure. Imagine the effect it would have — indeed, is having — on freedom, in India, and around the world, if the world’s largest democracy and one of its most inspiring hollows out as it rises. That American democracy is facing its own challenges from within — voter suppression, a vulnerable election system, a tsunami of money in politics, a broken legislature, and more — only raises the stakes for us all.