America’s Evolving Relationship with India and Pakistan: How and Why Our Foreign Policy Towards the Subcontinent Has Changed

Written by: Jacob Laufgraben

The United States’ foreign policy in South Asia has shifted dramatically between the end of British rule over the Indian subcontinent and the present day. Much of the change can be accounted to global phenomena, specifically the Cold War, and later the rise of jihadist groups. But simultaneously, the conversion in policy is indicative of and informed by the relationship between state and religion in Pakistan and India respectively. Pakistan’s status as a Muslim democracy and India’s status as a secular one, though becoming more religiously infused, have determined the past of the region and will influence South Asia’s future.

The world that nascent India and Pakistan were thrown into was a tumultuous one, learned from the mistakes of the Second World War but on the precipice of an ideological battle between democracy and communism. The world was divided into three camps: the United States and their allies, the Soviet Bloc, and the remaining non-aligned countries. As postcolonial nations, both India and Pakistan fell into the final group. But quickly the two immensely populous yet largely underdeveloped nations began making overtures to the world’s superpowers. 

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a student of Marxism and established socialism as the governing ideology for his country. The early decades of India’s independence were characterized by central economic planning, a protectionist trade policy, and an expansive public sector. This philosophical alignment between India and the Soviet Union caused the communist superpower to favor the Indians over their Pakistani neighbors in the form of military and economic aid.

But a benign relationship between the Soviets and Pakistan was probably unlikely to begin with. Aside from being capitalist, Pakistan is an Islamic republic, and its society, especially the influential middle class, was extremely religiously conservative. This caused them to hold an unfavorable view of the Soviet Union and their policy of state atheism, which India, being a secular nation, saw as much less of a detriment. A religious country, even a secular infidel nation like the United States, was a preferable ally in the eyes of the Pakistani people. It was for this reason that when President Harry Truman extended an invitation to Pakistan’s prime minister Ali Khan to come to the United States, he graciously accepted.

This arrangement of power, where the United States aligned itself with Pakistan and the Soviet Union with India, would continue for much of the Cold War. But changes both within India and Pakistan and on the world stage would shake this dynamic to its core. During the 1990s, India began a process of economic liberalization. The socialist system it had employed since independence, and the use of import substitution industrialization, a practice of substituting imports with domestic goods as a way to achieve self-sufficiency, resulted in the poverty rate remaining high and meager economic growth.

This, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, convinced India’s leaders that their current economic system was unsustainable. The government began selling off state-run industries to private owners, encouraging foreign investment, and abandoned import substitution industrialization in favor of global trade. The impact of this liberalization was slow but by the twenty-first century, India started to see tremendous economic growth and dramatic decrease in poverty. Not only this, but by adopting a capitalist system, and with the Soviet Union no longer in the picture, the possibility of a warmer Indo-American relationship opened.

Another great change was taking place in India during the latter half of the twentieth century though; since its inception, India chose secularism and federalism as a way to deal with its large and incredibly diverse population. But beginning in the 1970s, a new political movement began to gain speed. This movement was Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which seeks to define India not as a multi-religious and secular state, but one built upon Hinduism and specifically for Hindus.

This belief system started gaining ground largely because of the Indian people’s growing discontent with the Indian National Congress, the founding party of India, and the party of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was also the Congress Party that had espoused secularism. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, India experienced food shortages, high unemployment, and rising inflation. This, along with Gandhi herself being tried for election fraud, led to mass political unrest and the suspension of many civil rights. Quickly, the people began to lose faith in Gandhi’s party, which had dominated Indian politics since independence.

Today, India’s ruling faction is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by prime minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the Indian National Congress leads the country’s opposition. The BJP embraces social conservatism, neoliberal economic policies, and Hindutva, and in recent years the government has taken abusive action against the country’s Muslim minoirty. It appears that for India, the pendulum of history has swung from a secular and socialist state to one dominated by religious nationalism and a market economy. 

Throughout the Cold War, Pakistan reverted many times between democracy and military dictatorship. And for the most part, the United States, in their pursuit of realpolitik and the containment of communism, was happy to support whatever government happened to be in power. Despite President Jimmy Carter’s temporary embargo on Pakistan due to their perusal of nuclear weapons, he reevaluated his stance following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan and the United States worked together to arm and supply anti-Soviet fighters in the country. But the end of the Cold War brought about new strains on America’s relationship with their longtime partner in the region.

Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons as means of deterrent against India’s much larger conventional military, as well as their own nuclear arsenal, and the successful detonation of said nuclear weapon in 1998, injured American-Pakistani relations just as India was transitioning into a free market economy. This along with the rise of jihadists groups originating from Pakistan, like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan’s alleged harboring of Osama Bin Laden following the September 11th terror attacks, and the need for a counterbalance against America’s post-Cold War rival, China, drew the United States ever closer to the only country whose population could compete with Beijing, that of course being India.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, feeling the winds of an Indo-American alliance, pursued the protection of the People’s Republic of China. Similarly to how the United States sought a counterbalance to China in the form of India, Pakistan sought a counterbalance to India in the form of China. Today, Beijing, not Washington, is Pakistan’s largest supplier of military equipment, and India is the United States’ favored country on the subcontinent.

The present and future of our relationship with India and Pakistan is and certainly will continue to be influenced by religious factors. America’s anti-Muslim sentiment, which spiked following 9/11, has been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s harsh Islamophobic rhetoric, pushing America away from Pakistan and deeper into the Indian camp. Furthermore, India’s right-wing populist Modi complements Trump’s bigotry with his own Islamophobia. 

Even under a Biden administration though, America’s close relationship with India will endure. The two countries’ shared moral, economic and geopolitical interests require the world’s largest democracies to stand together. However, the Indian governments’ Hindutva and persecution of its Muslim minority will certainly put strain on an a administration that seeks to make human rights a cornerstone of its foreign policy, especially as it must attempt to address the human rights abuses in China.