U.S. Presidents in India: Since 1959

By Gunjan Bagla-

Gunjan Bagla is CEO of Amritt Inc in Malibu, California, and has a 20-year record of helping American executives to succeed in India. The views expressed are his own)

As we celebrate Presidents Day 2023 in the United States, let’s take a look at the American Presidents who traveled to the world’s largest democracy during its 76 years as an independent country.

(And the time I accompanied one as part of an Executive Mission to #mumbai and #Delhi.)

India gained independence from British Rule in 1947. It was another 12 years before an American President arrived on its shores. But there would be longer gaps later. Things changed in the 21st century.


Dwight D Eisenhower – 1959

In 1959 Dwight Eisenhower became the first U.S. president to visit India. His visit was during the tenure of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

During his trip, “Ike” addressed both houses of the Indian Parliament and visited the Taj Mahal with Prime Minister Nehru. The trip marked a significant shift in the perspective of many in Washington, who had not been happy with India’s preference to be a non-aligned country.

Richard M Nixon – 1969

Nixon’s one-day trip to India was primarily aimed at de-escalating tensions with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The two leaders had a frosty relationship because of India’s decision not to take sides in the Cold War and the U.S. decision to deepen its partnership with India’s fascist neighbor Pakistan.

Two years later, the relationship soured further when Nixon supported Pakistan in the India-Pakistan War of 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Nixon and Kissinger authorized the Seventh Fleet including the U.S.S. Enterprise to enter the Bay of Bengal. The war was massive but short, it lasted only 13 days. India’s Army and Air Force overwhelmed the beleaguered 93,000 soldiers, who were largely from West Pakistan, and took them all as prisoners of war. Lieutenant-General A.A.K. Niazi surrendered to his Indian counterpart Lt. General JS Arora on December 16, 1971, well before the American flotilla reached close to the war zone. The damage caused by Nixon and Kissinger to US-India relations still lives in Indian memory.

Jimmy Carter – 1978

Jimmy Carter came to India in January 1978 with first lady Rosalind Carter, when the Janata Party’s Morarji Desai was the prime minister.

During his three-day visit, Carter addressed India’s parliament and held several meetings with Indian politicians. The visit was preceded by Carter’s mother “Miss Lillian, who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mumbai several years earlier. Enthusiastic north Indians renamed a village Carterpuri.

Neither Ronald Reagan nor George HW Bush felt the need to visit India. There was a 22-year gap before a POTUS would touch India’s shores. During this time India vastly liberalized its economy in 1991 and began a rapid growth path that has kept up to this day.

Bill Clinton – 2000

Bill Clinton’s India trip accompanied by his daughter Chelsea Clinton, the first by a U.S. President in more than 20 years, was a landmark one that came after this prolonged lull in the relations between the two countries. After Clinton, every POTUS has spent time in India.

Clinton’s visit signified the beginning of closer US-India strategic and economic ties. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, the U.S. under Clinton sided with India, the first time it had supported India against Pakistan. Clinton also visited Mumbai where he gave a speech at the Bombay Stock Exchange, something that was inconceivable in years past. He also made short trips to Bangladesh and Pakistan while he was on the sub-continent.

I landed in Delhi shortly after Air Force One that March. It was quite a sight to see the aircraft as we taxied to the terminal. A few days later I was in Jaipur and our hotel was fully occupied by security personnel. The parking lot had huge antennas. And next week I visited Mumbai – where the main highway from the Airport to downtown was shut down for hours so POTUS could have a clear pathway (this was the last time that India would do this).

After leaving office, Clinton visited India as a private citizen as has his wife Hillary – as Secretary of State and alone with Chelsea.

George W Bush – 2006

George W Bush visited New Delhi and Hyderabad in 2006. By this time America has started to de-couple its thinking and separate India relations from any conversation with Pakistan. The attacks of September 11, 2001, had shown to the White House that alignment with India, which had suffered many incidents at the hand of foreign terrorists, could be a friend and partner.

In late 2008, at the height of the U.S. financial crisis, Bush and Singh signed the “123” Civil Nuclear Agreement which opened the doors to nuclear energy trade between India and the world. Singh would later call this agreement his greatest achievement. Later in life, Bush took to painting and made a great portrait of Dr. Singh.

Barack Obama – 2010 and 2015

Barack Obama visited India twice, the first President to do so while in office. During his first trip in 2010 during the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he backed India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. An executive mission consisting of American business leaders accompanied the President. I was the only person from California to be part of the trip. Obama arrived in Mumbai the day after Diwali, the festival of lights, and went on to Delhi later.

On Diwali night I left my brother’s home in Delhi and took an almost empty flight to Mumbai, landing in the midst of a city lit up with fireworks. I had a radio interview scheduled with National Public Radio Station KCRW and traffic was so heavy that I had to start the show while still riding the limo! Security at the hotel was tight but they knew I was arriving and I sailed through the X-Ray check with only a five-second blip. I completed the rest of the interview in the lobby of the hotel (while a number of burly plain clothes Secret Service men pretended to walk their dogs sniffing every corner).

Obama visited India again in 2015 as the chief guest on Republic Day under the administration of Prime Minister Modi. Potus said this in a speech to the public “I realize that the sight of an American President as your chief guest on Republic Day would have once seemed unimaginable. But my visit reflects the possibilities of a new moment. As I’ve said many times, I believe that the relationship between India and the United States can be one of the defining partnerships of this century.”

At a personal level, “Barry” Obama had an Indian-origin apartment mate when he was a student at Occidental College here in the Los Angeles area – that is when acquired an affinity for “dal” and began carrying a tiny statue of Hanuman with him at all times. Obama also held a kind of Town Hall with Indian students, something that India would not have encouraged of past Presidents.

Donald Trump – 2020

Donald Trump along with first lady Melania Trump was the seventh US president to visit India, where he was given a warm welcome. Their daughter Ivanka Trump also visited with them.

A personal rapport had developed between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Trump. The President landed in Ahmedabad, Gujarat the home state of Narendra Modi. He then went to Delhi and to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal with the first lady.


[Top photo courtesy and caption: Vice President Joe Biden meets with female Ph.D students at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Mumbai, India, July 25, 2013. Pictured are Aditi Kothiyal, Shikha Agarwal, Asfiya Contractor, Viha Jayraj, and Rimi Chakrabarti. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)]



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