Review of Seema Sirohi’s Friends with Benefits: The India-U.S. Story: Ringside view to bilateral ballet

February 17, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 05:09 pm IST

A journalist takes stock of India-U.S. ties, tracing the ups and downs of the relationship

Indian Embassy in Washington DC. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

If ever there were two nations whose collective and individual destinies mattered most to the fate of the global ethos of democracy, they are India and the U.S. — the largest and oldest democracies in the world. The work they do together to advance prosperity — national, bilateral, and regional — has never been more critical than it is today, at a time when the democratic narrative has been disrupted not only by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also by a political shift toward nativist populism across nations, reflecting disenchantment with the liberal order.

In this context, it is timely to remind ourselves of the longer arc of broad cooperation and limited conflict between India and the U.S., as each nation resolutely safeguarded its national interest during the Cold War years and beyond, and both sought to balance strategic aspirations with the imperative for economic growth through the globalisation era. This is precisely the challenge — and not a small one — that is taken up by Friends with Benefits: The India-U.S. Story, by journalist Seema Sirohi, a seasoned observer of the murky politics of Washington.

A gathering at Capitol Hill. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

‘Plenty of flavour’

Indeed, the inherent strength of the book, which the author describes as weaving together a narrative that is “adamantly non-academic but always professional, with some opinion, plenty of flavour of the times, a little humour, a bit of snark and a sliver of outrage,” is that it masterfully identifies political cleavages, ironies, and paradigmatic shifts over time that lucidly demonstrate what the bilateral pressure points have been — whether the China factor, Pakistan’s shadowy lobbying on Capitol Hill or sanctions slapped on India after the 1998 nuclear tests.

Specifically, there is narrative richness in the exposition of the frosty state of affairs in the bilateral space during the 1990s, which elegantly provides a contrasting backdrop to the tectonic shift that led to greater warmth and cordiality during the early 2000s. To this end, Sirohi documents a series of incidents, many centred around press leaks and planted stories designed to paint India in a poor light, as a spoiler in the U.S.’s aggressive global push for nuclear disarmament. Equally, she demonstrates how the prevailing official view in Washington’s beltway politics explicitly prioritised the strategic demands of Pakistan, whether it was in terms of sales of weapons and fighter aircraft to Islamabad, or financial assistance on the back of the Brown Amendment waiving the annual nuclear development certification requirements. The same applies to the erstwhile U.S. administration’s view on China, with the book fleshing out concerted efforts aimed at “downplaying Chinese proliferation in 1996” and then loosening up technology transfer rules that made it possible for Beijing to acquire components and develop high-tech satellites and guidance tech for long-range missiles.


Shakti -1, one of the sites of the nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran, on May 11, 1998. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

A softening

With India’s Pokhran nuclear tests of May 1998, the atmosphere turned distinctly hostile, in Sirohi’s telling, not only toward the official Indian establishment in Washington, but for journalists like her too. Crushing sanctions were imposed on India for its flouting of nuclear testing and proliferation agreements notwithstanding their inherent biases, and India was persona non grata for some, on the world stage. The U.S. position on India softened during the two terms of President George W. Bush, Sirohi explains, when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks Washington’s focus shifted to the Af-Pak neighbourhood and Iraq, and the talks between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh led to an easing of sanctions.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman and Prime Minister’s special envoy Jaswant Singh, in New Delhi on July 20, 1998. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The rest is history, as they say, though Friends with Benefits delights in telling the nuances of that positive phase in the historical arc — including the heavy lift by “Dubya”, adroitly supported by the burgeoning political heft of the Indian-American community, to get the Civil Nuclear Agreement ratified by the U.S. Congress and the gradual opening up of trade and investment flows between India and the U.S., including willingness on both sides to explore tech transfers and defence cooperation initiatives.

Members of the Indian-American community stage a demonstration against China, demanding the boycott of Chinese products, at Times Square, New York. | Photo Credit: PTI

Some irritants remain

To be sure, Sirohi readily acknowledges, irritants remain aplenty, from the ‘nannygate’ episode involving Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade at the micro level, to broader frictions surrounding the periodic tightening of U.S. visa conditions for tech workers that were overwhelmingly from India. Her narrative also thoughtfully illuminates why and how much leaders and styles of leadership matter, when she examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the Indian diaspora in the U.S. and former President Donald Trump’s focus on trade deficits, and how that impacted the ebb and flow of the bilateral bonhomie of the time.

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New Delhi after the U.S. court dismissed the visa fraud charges against her. | Photo Credit: PTI

Friends with Benefits serves as an important document of record. While it effectively fleshes out the minutiae of the bilateral drama, the broader narrative arc can sometimes feel blurry. Yet towards the end Sirohi neatly maps out the big picture of cooperation between India and the U.S., clarifying why the bilateral relationship is where it is today.

Friends with Benefits: The India-U.S. Story; Seema Sirohi, HarperCollins, ₹699.

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