America Has Never Really Understood India

The two countries conceptually seem destined to be partners, yet for decades have held remarkably divergent worldviews.

Jawaharlal Nehru addresses a crowd with the Indian flag at half-mast.
Max Desfor / AP

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resurrected Cold War hostilities, harkening back to a world in which the United States saw itself pitted in a Manichaean struggle, facing a choice between good and evil. The U.S. is using similar rhetoric today to persuade countries to isolate and punish Moscow. President Joe Biden has garnered support among his NATO allies to impose crippling sanctions on Russia, but his efforts elsewhere have been only partially successful. Australia and Japan—which, along with the U.S., make up three-quarters of the Quad, a relatively new Asian-security grouping—have signed on, but India, the fourth member of the bloc, has declined to join the chorus of condemnation.

Several high-level Western envoys have been dispatched to New Delhi to persuade Indian authorities to join the global coalition against Russia, while Moscow has courted the country in the hopes that it will hold firm. Biden stepped up the pressure during virtual talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, and has publicly called India’s response “shaky,” making clear that he is frustrated by India’s intransigence.

On the surface, this apparent distance between Washington, D.C., and New Delhi will seem odd. For more than a decade, the U.S. has sought to build a strategic partnership with India, and the two countries have much in common, including their democratic political systems and their shared concern over China’s rise. Analysts have largely attributed India’s unwillingness to turn against Russia to its reliance on Moscow for military equipment and energy exports. These are undoubtedly significant factors, yet they underplay just how uncertain and shallow the U.S.-India relationship remains.

In fact, the U.S. and India—two countries that conceptually seem destined to be partners—have for decades held remarkably divergent worldviews, finding themselves all too often pursuing conflicting objectives.

To make sense of the course India has taken in 2022, it is helpful to understand India’s relations with the U.S. during the Cold War.

When India became the world’s newest and largest democracy in 1947, its relations with the U.S., the world’s most powerful democracy, should by all accounts have been friendly. Both countries subscribed on paper to the same set of values—a commitment to a rules-based international order, a belief in free and fair elections, the rule of law, civil liberties, and free speech. Yet time and again, they saw things through very different lenses, misunderstanding each other’s goals in the process, ultimately leading to periods where they worked at odds with one another.

Even before India won its independence, the two sides had their disagreements. During the Second World War, Jawaharlal Nehru, who would go on to become India’s first prime minister, asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to persuade Britain to grant India its independence. Roosevelt, who had long expressed distaste with British imperialism, tried to convince Winston Churchill but was rebuffed. Unwilling to exert any pressure on India’s behalf that would jeopardize his relations with the British, Roosevelt did not pursue the matter, leaving Nehru disappointed that America was not living up to the principles of the Atlantic Charter, a nonbinding declaration by Britain and the U.S. in favor of self-determination.

After independence, new disputes emerged. India had won its freedom in a uniquely Indian way, through Gandhian nonviolence, and was loath to tether itself to any alliance, let alone one led by the U.S. that included its former colonial master. “We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale,” Nehru said in March 1947. He saw himself as a world statesman and was a leading advocate of the nonaligned movement, an attempt by developing countries to stand apart from American or Soviet demands for loyalty. He believed that it was essential for some countries to provide a neutral corridor where conflicts could be negotiated, a policy of neutrality toward great-power struggles that continues to be embraced across the Indian political spectrum.

Though this policy had its own morality, grounded in notions of anti-colonialism, it was not one that endeared India to successive American administrations. Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, viewed nonalignment with suspicion and had little interest in engaging neutral countries. He referred to Nehru as a “commie.” (Though Nehru was an avowed Fabian socialist, he was a resolute believer in democracy.) Despite India’s professed nonalignment, it had over time edged closer to the Soviet Union. John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, thought nonalignment was downright immoral. For their part, Indian leaders found the moral overtones of U.S. foreign policy, seemingly driven by a “You’re either with us or against us” ultimatum, an affront to their country’s sovereignty.

America’s transactional approach to aid also disappointed Indians. Nehru felt that begging for assistance was demeaning, but he had hoped that as the richer, more established democracy, the U.S. would offer India a helping hand. The U.S. Congress was governed by different sentiments. Some lawmakers argued that any country receiving American aid should show gratitude and were irritated that India had not supported American positions at the United Nations on Israel and the Korean War. “Our relations with India are not very good, are they?” Tom Connally, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in 1951. “Nehru is giving us hell all the time, working against us and voting against us.” The same year, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge asked, “What are the Indians going to do for us?” His conviction that India would show no appreciation for American help was shared by many on Capitol Hill.

Beyond aid, economic relations were fraught. Nehru had embarked on an ambitious plan after independence to industrialize India and make the country self-reliant, a key Indian goal, but a lack of capital and expertise required the country to partner with others. As part of these efforts, the U.S. held protracted negotiations with India to build a large steel plant in the eastern-Indian city of Bokaro, a project that had become a symbol of Indian national pride, but fundamental differences in economic ideology ruptured negotiations. In the end, the Soviet Union stepped in to rescue the plans.

After Nehru’s death, other disagreements over aid and economics exacerbated the distrust. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, traveled to Washington, D.C., in March 1966 to request food aid in the middle of India’s worst famine since independence, the World Bank and the White House put pressure on her to devalue the rupee as a precondition. Three months later, she did just that, though against the wishes of several members of the government who accused her of auctioning the country. The aid promised to India in return was slow to arrive and it wasn’t the economic success that she had hoped for. Domestically, the entire episode was a political disaster, and to recover support from the left, Gandhi criticized U.S. policy in Vietnam, which enraged then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. He responded by delaying food shipments to India that had already been approved by Congress. Indians were appalled that Johnson was using food aid as a weapon and began to sour on America.

Other resentments soon arose that would fracture the relationship further. Washington was more closely allied to Islamabad during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan that led to the founding of Bangladesh. Then, in 1974, when India carried out its inaugural nuclear-weapons test, the U.S. cut off fuel deliveries to India’s first nuclear-power station as punishment. Indian authorities, particularly the atomic-energy agency, began to see the U.S. as unreliable and unconcerned about India’s security needs; from the American perspective, however, India was unimportant, except as a frontline state to contain China and the spread of communism, and its constant requirement for aid in those early years muted its power on the world stage.

Partly as a result of all these factors, India came to rely heavily on the Soviet Union for its military equipment. The Pentagon, suspicious of the Indo-Soviet relationship, refused to sell India sophisticated weapons or computers and continued to strengthen Pakistan’s military. Nor would the U.S. permit India, which was keen to be an independent actor, to manufacture arms domestically through joint ventures or cooperation agreements. The Soviets were more accommodating to India’s goals and soon became the country’s primary arms supplier. India has long worried about its military dependence on Moscow, but though it has made recent moves to diversify its suppliers, Russian military equipment still accounts for the majority of India’s total defense stock.

Relations between the U.S. and India have warmed considerably in the past couple of decades. By 2000, India’s economic reforms had propelled growth, which, combined with the country’s military strength and nuclear capability, made it an attractive counter to China’s rise. George W. Bush, who sought to cultivate India as a potential strategic partner, undertook the herculean task of getting congressional approval for a special nuclear deal with India, and relations improved further when Modi was elected India’s prime minister in 2014: He made good relations with the U.S. a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

The Ukraine crisis has challenged this partnership by altering the world’s geopolitical landscape. India had in recent years converged with the U.S. on the need to contain China, which not only humiliated India when it invaded in 1962 but lays claim to territory that India considers its own. Disputes along the countries’ border flare up regularly, most recently in 2020.

Yet India’s dependency on Moscow for weapons has proved difficult to overcome. With two hostile nuclear-armed states on its border, India is not in a position to jettison its relationship with Russia. U.S. officials, recognizing India’s dilemma, say they understand that the country will need time to fully diversify its portfolio and have offered to help locate spare parts and alternative sources of supply. Even so, India has recently purchased S-400 air-defense equipment from Russia, casting a cloud over New Delhi’s military relationship with Washington.

Given these short-term security calculations and the longer-term legacy of distrust between the U.S. and India, what sort of partnership can Washington realistically expect from New Delhi?

Nehru’s legacy of non-alignment still remains immense, so it is worth turning to him again: At a press conference in London in July 1957, he remarked that friendships are not monogamous, and this is certainly central to Indian thinking. In the past, India has rejected formal alliances, keeping with its policy of nonalignment. Even as India grew closer to the U.S., Indian officials rebranded nonalignment as “strategic autonomy.” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, makes clear in his book on the subject that the core objective of this policy is to “give India maximum options in its relations with the outside world.”

It may thus be wiser and more productive for the U.S. in the immediate future to make piecemeal arrangements with India based on limited areas of mutual interest and build from there. The two countries can cooperate in many areas, such as space, artificial intelligence, maritime technology, and global health. In the long run, the U.S. and India appear to need each other to manage a security concern they both share—China’s assertiveness—and that may draw them closer together.

Yet there are plenty of reasons that India and the U.S., for all their commonalities, could stray apart again. For one, the U.S. under Biden talks of a world divided into democracies and autocracies, and it has expressed concern over India’s retreat from liberalism, pluralism, and human rights under Modi.

Much as they have been for the past 75 years, India and the U.S. seem to be two countries that should be the best of friends, yet they continue to find reasons to disagree.