Tracing the arc of American ‘exception-ism’ for India

The article discusses the growth of the India-US relationship over the past 25 years and the exceptions made by the US for India in various domains. It highlights the civil nuclear deal, waivers on regulations related to Russia, and exemptions under the International Religious Freedom Act as examples of exceptions made for India


The India-US relationship has come a long way since its lowest point 25 years ago when the US imposed sanctions on India and Pakistan following their nuclear weapons tests. Over the past two decades, the relationship has grown steadily, with various US presidents and Indian prime ministers contributing to its development. Different eras in the relationship focused on summit-level diplomacy, nuclear diplomacy, and trade and military diplomacy. Recently, the two nations have embraced technology diplomacy, marked by the promise of Transfer of Technology (ToT) between General Electric (GE) Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for fighter jet engines.

The Civil Nuclear Deal

Despite India’s non-membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the US made a series of exceptions specifically for India. These exceptions included waivers on sanctions, civil nuclear exemptions, and India-specific waivers on export controls and high technology trade. These exceptions were not extended to other non-NPT countries like Pakistan and signaled a significant shift in the US alignment in South Asia.

The Russian Angle

The US has also granted waivers to India concerning regulations related to Russia, such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). While the US avoided sanctioning India for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, it imposed sanctions on Turkey and China for similar purchases. The US House of Representatives even passed an amendment that would exempt India entirely from CAATSA sanctions. Additionally, the US has refrained from imposing secondary sanctions on India for its engagement with Russia, despite imposing sanctions on German entities involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

International Religious Freedom Act

Exemptions India has received exemptions under the International Religious Freedom Act for the past four years, despite recommendations to include it in the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” along with China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Myanmar. These exemptions have been granted despite India’s strong ties with US adversaries such as Russia and Iran.

Reasons for US Exceptions

The US has institutionalized a broad-based waiver policy for India due to several reasons. Firstly, India’s promise as the world’s most populous inclusive and pluralistic democracy with a track record in non-proliferation plays a significant role. The US calculates that expressing concerns on issues like authoritarianism is unproductive and prefers to engage with India and China due to their size. Secondly, India’s attractiveness as an economic market and a military buyer contributes to the exceptions made for India. Thirdly, India’s geography in Asia, along with its border disputes with China, makes it a potentially reliable partner in countering China. Lastly, the Indian-American diaspora, a professional, law-abiding, prosperous community, has also influenced better India-US ties.

Challenges and Future Outlook

Despite the positive trajectory of the relationship, challenges persist. The exceptions made for India can be reversed at any time, leading to concerns about the fickleness of US foreign policy. The relationship also remains largely one-directional, with India primarily benefiting in terms of investment, hardware, and technology transfer.

The pace and scope of future advancements in high-tech collaboration, clean energy transitions, semiconductor technology, and artificial intelligence remain unpredictable. Furthermore, the geopolitical context of the relationship, driven by countering China and Russia, is primarily an American construct.

India’s strategic autonomy and differing priorities may affect the long-term sustainability of the partnership. To achieve a quantum leap in US-India ties, a shift is required from exceptions to mutual respect for each other’s strategic autonomy, transforming the relationship into one between equal partners.