On June 8, Narendra Modi will become the sixth Indian Prime Minister to address US lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Seen from the vantage of 2016, the addresses by the five Prime Ministers who were accorded the honour earlier offer a remarkable snapshot of the trajectory of India-US relations over the last 60 years — from Jawaharlal Nehru who, on October 13, 1949, declared “the preservation world peace and the enlargement of human freedom” to be the focus of Indian foreign policy, to Manmohan Singh who promised the US and the world on July 19, 2005: “We have never been, and will never be, a source of proliferation of sensitive technologies.”
Jawaharlal Nehru: A Voyage Of Discovery, October 13, 1949
“I have come here on a voyage of discovery of the mind and heart of America and to place before you our own mind and heart. Thus we may promote that understanding and cooperation which, I feel sure, both our countries earnestly desire.
We realise that self-help is the first condition of success for a nation, no less than for an individual. We are conscious that ours must be the primary effort and we shall seek succour from none to escape from any part of our own responsibility. But though our economic potential is great, its conversion into finished wealth will need much mechanical and technological aid.
We shall, therefore, gladly welcome such aid and cooperation on terms that are of mutual benefit… But we do not seek any material advantage in exchange for any part of our hard-won freedom.”
CONTEXT: The House Chamber was under renovation, and Nehru addressed a reception in the Ways and Means Committee Room in the New House Office Building (later renamed Longworth) for 15 minutes. He then headed to the Senate, temporarily meeting in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, to give the same address. Relations between India and the US, then led by President Harry S Truman, were at a nascent stage. Nehru’s policy of non-alignment, and socialist views, were generally met with scepticism in Washington DC.
Rajiv Gandhi: Welcome All Cooperation We Get, June 13, 1985
“I have been elected Prime Minister of India at a time when our nation stands poised for a new surge of growth. Our leaders in the past 30 years have established firm foundations on which we have now to build. India is an old country, but a young nation; and like the young everywhere, we are impatient.
I am young, and I have a dream. I dream of an India — strong, self-reliant, and in the front rank of the nations of the world in the service of mankind. I am committed to realising that dream through dedication, hard work, and the collective determination of our people. We will welcome all the cooperation that we can get.”
CONTEXT: India was seen as close to the Soviet bloc, although it claimed non-alignment. With President Ronald Reagan, the differences were mainly around arming Pakistan. Rajiv’s visit was a huge hit; Secretary of State George P Shultz said it had “exceeded everything expected”. In a commentary in The New York Times, Bernard Weinraub quoted a Reagan administration official as saying: “There’s a night and day contrast between Rajiv and his mother… This fellow has an open mind. Reagan and Mrs Gandhi were roughly the same generation and the irony is that Reagan has far more rapport with Rajiv than he had with Mrs Gandhi”. The seeds of high-technology transfers and space cooperation were sown during Rajiv’s period.
P V Narasimha Rao: Threshold Of Bold New Era, May 18, 1994
“US and India have learned a great deal from each other throughout history. Distances did not matter. Indeed, distances never mattered in the transmission of ideas because their medium is the mind.
Then came the Cold War. That great opportunity seemed to be slipping through our fingers even as we tried to hold it in our hands. Today we have to worry about the fingers.
Being transient, term-bound representatives of our peoples, you and I have neither the time nor the need to review what we do not wish to repeat. It is the future we have to think about — in fact, worry about. And, of course, the fingers. The fingers are simply democracy and development. From my own personal experience, I have no doubt that this is an extremely difficult combination and equally essential, in India’s view.
Indo-US relations are on the threshold of a bold, new era.
As India stands poised to contribute to global prosperity and peace in the next century, we look forward to continuing our partnership with America and with the American people. India is one of the developing countries in which the process of development is firmly established. We have realised that no quick fixes are possible and that there is no substitute for hard work with full involvement of the people.”
CONTEXT: The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War had ended, and India had unveiled a radical programme of economic reforms. It was a time of great opportunity and hope, and aptly enough, Rao spoke of the need to look to the future without the baggage of the past. President Bill Clinton was some months into his first term when Rao visited.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Let’s Remove The Hesitation, September 14, 2000
“If we want… a democratic, prosperous, tolerant, pluralistic, stable Asia… where our vital interests are secure, then it is necessary for us to re-examine old assumptions… In the years ahead, a strong, democratic and economically prosperous India, standing at the crossroads of all the major cultural and economic zones of Asia, will be an indispensable factor of stability in the region.
Security issues have cast a shadow on our relationship. I believe this is unnecessary. We have much in common and no clash of interests.
India understands your concerns. We do not wish to unravel your non-proliferation efforts. We wish you to understand our security concerns. Let us remove the shadow of hesitation that lies between us and our joint vision.”
CONTEXT: Vajpayee’s government had carried out a nuclear test just two years ago, inviting a range of global sanctions. But a new phase of economic reforms were being unveiled in India, the IT sector was booming, and growth was picking up. Vajpayee, the second Prime Minister to visit under Clinton’s presidency, spoke with vision and conviction.
Manmohan Singh: Must Fight Terror Everywhere, July 19, 2005
“President Bush and I arrived at an understanding in finding ways and means to enable (civil nuclear energy) cooperation… India’s track record in nuclear non-proliferation is impeccable. We have adhered scrupulously to every rule and canon… even though we have witnessed unchecked nuclear proliferation in our own neighbourhood… We have never been, and will never be, a source of proliferation of sensitive technologies.
The United States and India must work together in all possible forums to counter all forms of terrorism. We cannot be selective in this area. We must fight terrorism wherever it exists, because terrorism anywhere threatens democracy everywhere.
CONTEXT: With the economic relationship blooming, India and the US took steps to take ties to a higher strategic level. President George W Bush offered India a sweetheart civil nuclear deal, the framework agreement for which was signed a day before Singh’s address to Congress, and which was finally concluded in 2008.