Various reasons are given for United States’ President Joe Biden not accepting India’s invitation to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2024, and for the postponement of the QUAD summit that was to be held on January 27. But the context of these decisions indicates a major strain in India-US relations over a range of questions both strategic and ideological.

Seen earlier on by well known Indo-American scholar Ashely Tellis, and reiterated more recently by Daniel Markey, Senior Adviser in the South Asia Program at the United States Institute of Peace, events have shown that India and the US are not “natural allies” wedded to democracy in contrast to China and Russia which work together even though are dubbed as “authoritarian.”

India has not proved to be a firm strategic ally of the order of the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. India is neither in the NATO European alliance nor is it part of the more intimate Anglo-Saxon AUKUS.

India does not seem to be eager to go to war against China as the AUKUS partners are, preferring to settle issues with China diplomatically. India does not share US, NATO, AUKUS’ hostility to Russia preferring to trade with it despite US sanctions.

All these make India a dubious partner in the Indo-Pacific alliance which is directed against China in the guise of fighting for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada and the alleged plan to kill another Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the US by Indian intelligence has brought the Indo-US fissure into the open. Former RAW chief A.S. Dulat told The Wire’s Karan Thapar that the US had brought these issues into the open and made an extraordinary fuss only to wrest some geo-strategic concessions from New Delhi.

Dulat did not identify the concessions but they are likely to be major geopolitical policy shifts in favour of the US and the Western alliance. India will have to abandon its commitment to “strategic autonomy” that has been its policy since Independence.

This will be extremely difficult for the establishment in New Delhi and the political leadership as it will injure the credibility of the Indian intelligence community and also the image of the political leadership in the run up to parliamentary elections in May 2024.

India has gone some distance in placating the US and has appointed a high level committee to go into the US’ charges. But the Americans don’t seem to be in a mood to wait. They have been sending official after official to New Delhi to pressure the Modi government. .

The US’ Deputy National Security Adviser (NSA) Jonathan Finer, discussed the investigation into the plot in Delhi with India’s NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Christopher Wray, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) — the agency responsible for the undercover investigation, was also in Delhi.

India is desperately in need to upgrade its defence technology to meet a Chinese threat on the border and also a threat from Beijing’s ally, Pakistan. There is no country other than the US to which India can turn in this area of expertise. There is therefore a conflict between pride and practicality.

Likewise, needs India to stall China’s moves to challenge the West’s domination of the Indo-Pacific. India has the population and the economic potential to be a bulwark.

But the US has apparently chosen to exploit the Nijjar and Pannun issues to make New Delhi accede to its geopolitical and geo-economic interests.

The context of such a move by the US was brought by Daniel Markey in an article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ in June 16, 2023 entitled: “Washington and New Delhi Share Interests, Not Values.” Markey ridicules paeans sung by American leaders in favour of “the world’s largest democracy” and debunks the notion that the world’s two biggest democracies cannot but have similar worldviews and interests.

This notion of commonality of ideals has consistently failed to hold water, Markey points out.

“During the Cold War, successive presidential administrations tried to get New Delhi to stand against Moscow by arguing that, as a democracy, India was a natural enemy of the Soviet Union. When President George W. Bush struck a breakthrough civilian nuclear deal with India in 2005, he declared that India’s democratic system meant that the two states were “natural partners” united “by deeply held values.

“Yet, again and again, India has disappointed American hopes. Gandhi, for example, frustrated Roosevelt by prioritizing India’s struggle for freedom against the British Empire over the war against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. New Delhi not only refused to align with Washington during the Cold War; it forged warm ties with Moscow instead.

“Even after the Cold War ended and India began strengthening its relations with the United States, New Delhi maintained strong connections to the Kremlin. It has refused to work with the United States on Iran, and it has made nice with Myanmar’s military regime. Most recently, it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Markey points out.

He added: “If making democratic values the cornerstone of the U.S.-Indian relationship has always been a dubious strategy, today it is clearly doomed—because the very notion of common values has itself come to look fanciful.

“Ever since Narendra Modi became the Indian prime minister nine years ago, India’s status as a democracy has become increasingly suspect. The world’s largest democracy has seen an upsurge in violence directed at its Muslim minority, often whipped up by prominent politicians. It is trying to strip citizenship from millions of Muslim residents.

“It is muzzling the press and silencing opposition figures. The Biden administration, having cast itself as a vocal champion of democratic ideals, therefore finds itself on shaky ground whenever it characterizes the United States’ partnership with India as one of shared values.”

The American scholar suggests that considering America’s need for India to be a bulwark against China in the Asian region, and to exploit its considerable human resources, Washington must “dispense with the idea that shared values can provide the bedrock of a strong relationship,” and take into consideration only the “shared interests”.

Seen in the present context, this implies that the US must wink at the Nijjar and Pannun affairs and seek close ties with India, virtually on the latter’s terms.

Markey urges tolerance of New Delhi’s behaviour on the basis of a bet on long-term convergence. In other words, “rather than considering India an ally in the fight for global democracy, it must see that India is an ally of convenience.”

But Markey acknowledges that this shift “will not be easy, given that Washington has spent decades looking at New Delhi through rose-coloured glasses. But the (new) pivot will encourage both sides to understand that their relationship is ultimately transactional—and allow them to get down to business.”

Perhaps, there is already a change in Washington’s mindset. As A.S. Dulat said, by indicting Nikhil Gupta in the Pannun case, banning RAW from operating in the US (and Canada) and sending top level security officials to New Delhi to talk to the Indian establishment, the US may be trying to make India bend and give strategic concessions to the US and its Western allies vis-à-vis China and Russia in return for weapons and intelligence.

But this will put India in a cleft stick. Historically, India has prided itself on its strategic autonomy (previously called non-alignment) and its leadership of the Third World. Under Narendra Modi’s watch, India is exercising and promoting “strategic autonomy” and has declared itself as the leader of the “Global South” and even as a “Vishwa Guru” or World Teacher.

By kneeling before the US and Canada and even indirectly accepting responsibility for the killing of Nijjar in Canada and admitting a plot to kill Pannun in the US only to be let off a legal hook, the Indian government will lose face in the domestic sphere – something it cannot countenance just a few months before parliamentary elections.

Therefore, Indo-US relations are likely to be frosty for an indefinite period unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough at the highest levels on both sides of the divide.