Obama's Upcoming India Trip

Visits by U.S. Presidents to friendly countries are more symbolic than substantive. They are meant to reaffirm policies already in place. President Eisenhower's South Asian visit in 1959, the first visit by any American President to the region, demonstrated Eisenhower's policy of trying to balance relations with non-aligned India and a military ally Pakistan. President Clinton's March 2000 visit emphasized the growing economic and political ties between the world's largest and world's oldest democracies. President Bush's 2006 visit consolidated growing US-India ties and sealed them with the India-US nuclear deal.

The eve of President Obama's visit to India next month presents an opportunity to examine the American elite's view of India.

During the 1940s, the United States under President Roosevelt was very supportive of the Indian independence movement. The US repeatedly applied subtle pressure on the British government to allow India dominion status first and then complete independence. American policy makers had high expectations of India under Nehru. Nehru's reluctance to involve India too deeply in the Cold War, however, led to disenchantment between American and Indian leaders.

During the Cold War, South Asia was rarely high on the American security agenda. As political scientist Myron Weiner pointed out very perceptively in the 1960s, South Asia occupied a low priority because "it has no resources vital to the American economy," it is "not a region with substantial American private investment," "its geopolitical position raises no fundamental problems for American security," "has no deep cultural or historical ties with the United States" and "no significant segment of the American population originates or had an enduring association with the region."

Today, the reality is markedly different. India's 1.1 billion population constitutes a huge market. It has the world's third largest armed forces, the fifth largest economy and also possesses nuclear weapons. India is located in a part of the world which has become strategically important for American foreign policy. India is the largest democracy in the world and one of the few long-lasting and consistent democracies in Asia.

Compared to anemic economic ties during the 1950s and 1960s, today the United States is India's top trading partner with over $61 billion in bilateral trade. Over the last decade, India has become the leading outsourcing destination for most American companies with two in five of America's Fortune 500 companies outsourcing their software to India. U.S. investment in India in 1950s-1960s was mainly in the form of aid and loans. Today U.S. is the largest foreign portfolio investor and India is the destination for $16 billion in American foreign direct investment.

The India-US civilian nuclear deal has opened up a potential $150 billion market in power plants. India plans on modernizing its military by spending $100 billion in the next ten years and many American companies are contenders for defense equipment contracts. Currently, American arms sales to India average $3.5 billion annually. For the last couple of years, India and United States have held annual joint military exercises paving the way for closer security relations. Earlier this month the first of India's six C-130J Super Hercules airlifters, considered the world's most advanced transport aircraft, and manufactured by US-based Lockheed Martin, were delivered to India.

In the 1950s, the US hosted only a small Indian-American community. Today there is a vibrant community of over 2.5 million with many Indian-Americans occupying key positions in government, business and academia. A few hundred Indian students came to study in the United States during the 1950s compared with more than 100,000 Indian students that come annually these days.

The dynamic between India and the US has transformed over the last five decades and President Obama's November visit to India would showcase that transformation. In the initial period of the Obama presidency Indian policy makers were worried that India no longer occupied the same favored spot as India had during the Bush era. However, the Obama administration has tried to show that it values the relationship with India no less. Hosting Premier Manmohan Singh as President Obama's first state guest in the White House and President Obama straying away from protocol and attending the dinner hosted by Secretary of State Clinton in June 2010 during the Strategic Dialogue meetings signaled that new dynamic. At regular intervals, various high-ranking officials have also repeatedly referred to the India-US relationship as one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

In 1959 President Eisenhower's four day visit was the first by an American President to India. Welcomed warmly by the Indian public Eisenhower, however, maintained that while the American relationship with India was of the head, that with Pakistan was of the heart. Forty-years later, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asserted that the India-US relationship is "an affair of the heart, not just of the head." Aparna Pande has a doctorate in political science and is a research fellow at Hudson Institute. Her book on Pakistan's Foreign Policy, published by Routledge, will be released in March 2011.