Pandit Nehru met US president Truman  during a multi week tour of the US in 1949. India rejected the US demand of not recognizing the communist take over of China, which strained the relationship between the two nations.

As the cold war started and the world divided into two power blocs, India, in order to protect her sovereignty, decided to remain neutral and became one of the pioneers of the Non Aligned Movement. This decision shaped the nature of India US relations throughout the cold war.

President Dwight Eisenhower was the first serving U.S. president to visit India in 1959. He sought to improve the strained relationship. Unlike Truman, he did not demand India’s support to contain Chinese Communist aggression as a quid pro quo for stronger ties between the two nations.

President Joseph Kennedy considered India a strategic partner which could help contain the rise of Communist China. For this reason, he openly supported India during the 1962 India China war and even suggested contingency plan to avert another Chinese attack on India in future. It was during his time, when the US helped India to establish one of India’s first computer science departments at the IIT Kanpur. In 1963, Norman Borlaug, an American biologist traveled to India to begin testing high-yield wheat varieties. His collaboration with Indian scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan resulted in the “Green Revolution,” which pulled India out of food scarcity and made her self sufficient within a decade.

India US ties started deteriorating after assassination of President Kennedy and reached its nadir during President Nixon tenure. As opposed to his predecessors, Nixon decided to reconcile the US  relations with China and saw Pakistan as a mediator to meet this end. The US openly supported  Pakistan during the 1971 India Pakistan war. Differences between Mrs Indira Gandhi and Nixon further strained the relations. The US started supporting Pakistan militarily and economically, and India also chose to ink a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union, thus, sharply deviating from her previous position of non-alignment.

India detonated its first nuclear device in 1974, becoming the first nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to have declared nuclear capabilities. The US toughened its stand against India and Jimmy Carter, then president of the US , enacted Nuclear Non Proliferation Act in 1978 and urged India to allow inspections of her nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. India refused, and  unhappy Washington barred all nuclear assistance to Delhi.

Relationship improved a little during President Ronald Reagan term, and Mrs Indira Gandhi made a visit to Washington in 1982. Reagan administration approved the supply of select technology to India. Before the ties could become normal, a toxic gas and chemical leak at American-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant killed over 3000 people in Bhopal. The extradition of the company’s CEO and compensation issues complicated the relations again.

With the end of the cold war and introduction of economic reforms in India, ties between two nations started improving again. Opening of India’s economy to international trade and investment, deregulation, initiation of privatization, tax reforms, and inflation-controlling measures, helped in expansion of India-US economic ties.

In 1998, the Indian government announced the completion of a series of underground nuclear tests. The US opposed to the testing heavily and voted in favour of a UNSC resolution condemning the same. Washington imposed economic sanctions on India, and prohibited the uranium export and technology transfer. In 2000, President Clinton visited India and resumed talks related to economic and bilateral ties, but pressed India to sign Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Indo US Science and Technology Forum was established during this visit and the economic sanctions were lifted.

The George W Bush administration lifted all remaining sanctions imposed on India in 2001. India agreed to allow close international monitoring of its nuclear weapons development, but refused to sign CTBT.

The year 2005 saw tremendous improvement in ties between the two nations. An Open Skies Agreement was signed in 2005, enhancing trade, tourism, and business via the increased number of flights. In the same year, both the countries signed the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship ,which set the priorities for defense cooperation in maritime security, humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, and counter-terrorism. The new defense framework was a result of  September 11  terror attack on the US, which  made India a possible strategic partner in curbing the growing Islamic terrorism.

A dialogue on energy security was also started in 2005, despite the differences over India’s possible energy cooperation with Iran, and the U.S. defense ties with Pakistan. The landmark Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative by the US lifted its 30 years moratorium on nuclear trade with India. India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and placed all its civil resources under IAEA safeguards, thus, making India the only country outside of the Nonproliferation Treaty that has nuclear capabilities and is allowed to participate in nuclear commerce.   

In 2010, the United States and India formally convened the US-India Strategic Dialogue initiated under President Bush. The dialogue outlined the cooperation in key areas like energy security, climate change, global security and counter terrorism, cyber security agriculture, education, health etc. President Obama’s protectionist policies like limiting temporary visas and outsourcing, and also, his Af Pak policy strained the relationship between the two countries, but in a major policy shift, during his first visit to India in 2010, Mr. Obama declared the US support for India’s permanent membership in UNSC. He also announced the removal of export related restrictions on various Indian companies. However, the US concerns over liability clause in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage (CLND) Act, 2010 could not be allayed.

Contrary to the international custom of holding the operator solely responsible for compensation in an accident, India’s nuclear liability law also holds the suppliers liable for such compensations. India signed the Convention of Civil Supplementary Compensation in 2010. This convention provides for additional funds to victims in case the damage from a nuclear accident is more than the national liability cap, but it requires the operator to be solely responsible for a nuclear accident, and is thus, contradictory with the Indian law. The liability clause made the international nuclear energy firms reluctant to undertake any major project in India.

Major irritants between India and the US during second term of President Obama were -resentment among the US drug manufacturing companies due to IPR regime of India; Washington’s reservation over India’s food security programme, which they termed is against the WTO rules; the US snooping scandal ; differences regarding climate change and related issues; the US economic and military support to Pakistan and its demand to ink the long pending bilateral investment treaty.

The US pivot to Asia, a regional re balancing strategy of Obama administration has implicit impacts over India. Though the strategy aims at enhancing economic, military and security ties with Asian countries, it was mainly interpreted as the US strategy to contain the rise of China in Asia. East Asian nations want to balance their relations with both China and the US. These nations have no contentious issues with India and thus, unsure of the US actual intents behind her strategy,  they are welcoming greater Indian involvement in regional affairs.

After Government change in India, Mr. Modi made his first visit to the US as India’s prime minister. President Obama has been invited as chief guest at India’s 2015 Republic day Celebrations. The talks ended with following outcomes :

The movement in civil nuclear agreement talks has been termed as the biggest outcome of the visit which would help resolve nuclear liability deadlock. The liability cap has been reduced for supplier and if needed, money can be drawn from an insurance pool maintained by GIC, thus, further indemnifying the suppliers. However, it is hard to say that to what extent American nuclear energy firms would find this arrangement attractive. The settlement has not been received positively within India. This kind of arrangement, as per experts, works well when operators from both public and private spheres are indulged in the business. In a country like India, where both operator and insurer are going to be  public sector undertakings, the cost will be finally born by Indian tax payers.

The long pending bilateral investment treaty can see some progress in future, as it would help to give a fillip to India’s Make in India initiative.The treaty is also important as India is not a member of evolving regional trade blocks of the west like TTP(Trans Pacific Partnership) and Trade in Services Agreement(TISA) and APEC(Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation). These trade blocks would constitute major chunk of global trade in future and thus, along with efforts to get entry into these blocks, India has to focus on bilateral investment options, as India needs technology transfer from the US for its nuclear and renewable energy projects and also, the reverse investments in the US and its market as export destination.

After successful resolution of issues over India’s Food Security Act, Washington has now approached WTO dispute settlement panel for addressing issues related to India’s domestic content requirements under its solar power programme. The other irritants in the ties are ; India’s IPR regime , differences over climate change collaboration, the US aids to Pakistan and India’s stand on the US Russia deteriorating relations.

Though differences seem to outweigh the commonalities in Indo US relations, it cant be denied that both India and the US need each other for their future endeavors. For example, similar to the US pivot to the Asia , India’s Look East policy aims at stronger economic and strategic ties with South East Asian nations and thus, there is a symphony between these two policies. Both India and the US want to curb global terrorism. While India needs technology transfer for defense, cyber security and space exploration; the US companies need growing Indian markets to sell their products.

While gradually resolving the differences , India shall continue working with the US to achieve the common goals, without compromising with the strategic autonomy in internal and external affairs.