For decades, American policymakers have portrayed the US-India relationship as one founded on shared democratic principles and values. The idea was that these common bonds would serve as the bedrock of a strong partnership between the world's oldest and largest democracies. However, recent developments in India, particularly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership, have cast doubts on the viability of this values-based approach.
Throughout history, US leaders, both liberal and conservative, have championed India's democratic identity as a reason to support and strengthen ties with the nation. From President Kennedy's bipartisan resolution in 1958 to President Obama's speeches emphasizing the bond between "two strong democracies," the notion of shared values has been a recurring theme.
Despite the rhetoric, India has frequently disappointed American expectations. During World War II, Mahatma Gandhi's focus on India's struggle for freedom over the war against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany frustrated President Franklin Roosevelt. India's refusal to align with the United States during the Cold War, its warm ties with Moscow, and its continued connections to the Kremlin have been sources of frustration. India's reluctance to cooperate with the US on various international issues, including its refusal to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has further strained the values-based narrative.
Under Prime Minister Modi, India's status as a democracy has come into question. The country has witnessed an increase in violence against its Muslim minority, erosion of press freedom, and silencing of opposition voices. This shift challenges the Biden administration's stance of emphasizing shared democratic values in its dealings with India.
While shared values have weakened, shared material interests have grown stronger, particularly in the face of a common geopolitical foe: China. India's significance as a massive power in Asia and its potential as a source of advanced technology, education, and investment have made it an attractive partner for the United States.
To capitalize on these mutual interests, the US must shift its perspective from considering India an ally in the fight for global democracy to recognizing it as an ally of convenience. This change is essential to foster a transactional approach that focuses on pragmatic cooperation rather than an idealized partnership based on shared values.
The US has a history of cooperating with regimes it doesn't necessarily endorse for the sake of its own security interests. The example of Nixon's opening to China, while controversial, illustrates the idea of cooperating with a nation for mutual benefits despite underlying differences.