The Indian foreign policy has seen incremental changes in its orientation since the days of PV Narasimha Rao and under Narendra Modi's premiership, the change has been vivid. New Delhi's turning towards pragmatism in its external affairs is a welcome development as it has kept pace with the ever-changing realities but it is only under Modi since 2014 that the shifting of goal has received a steady boost.
It was in the 1980s that India felt the need to change course
The need to change India's course in foreign policy and particularly the dealings vis-a-vis the US, the world's only superpower, was felt towards the end of the Indira Gandhi days and during her successor Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. But the political and bureaucratic ambience and the general mental set-up towards the US did not approve of a drastic change of policy. [Modi, Obama discuss extremism]
Rao, Vajpayee, Manmohan made incremental changes in India's US policy
It was the non-Gandhi prime ministers in Rao (1991-96), Atal Behari Vajpaye(1996, 1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (20104-14) who took steps to rewrite the script of India's US policy in the post-Cold War and liberalisation era. [Modi addresses USIB summit]
Rao had declared that "sky is the limit" in India-US relations; Vajpayee had called Washington a "natural ally" of New Delhi and Singh defied the Left Front's opposition and risked his own government's survival to sign the nuclear and defence agreements with the US. But after an initial success, Singh failed to pen a turnaround in the relations with the US even as the latter had presented opportunities to accomplish so.
Singh could not push reforms after initial success owing to political opposition
There were too much of obstacles for the prime minister---both from the Opposition, bureaucrats and even his own party which has traditionally not believed in the prospects of New Delhi having a rapport with Washington on a steady basis. [From 'no visa' to close partner: How Modi's US story has unfolded in last 10 years]
Under Modi, the compulsion doesn't exist for he leads a majority govt
Under Modi, such compulsion does not exist. For one, Modi is the leader of a majority government unlike three of the abovementioned premiers. Also he is by far the tallest leader in his own party, the BJP, and hence there is no possibility of opposition evolving from inside. [US names India as major defence partner]
Secondly, his reputation as the chief minister of a business-friendly state like Gujarat had prepared the groundwork. Being a pro-market administrator, Modi never had the problem to push his case afresh before the international community.
Modi made use of these advantages: 3 factors that made the difference
But Modi also ensured that the advantages he had did not go waste and therein lies his credit. His unprecedented success in dealing with the US led by Barack Obama has been made possible by three reasons.
Modi stressed India's long-term interests while dealing with US; it never happened earlier
First, the PM has a clear vision on the long-term sustainability of the Indo-US relations. Modi never cared for the USA's once deciding against granting him a visa in view of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. He set aside the personal agenda and ensured that India's long-term interests were served through befriending Washington. This clarity was lacking earlier, thanks to the absence of a consensus and prevalence of confusion, which was again caused by the lack of regular updating of the understaning of India's national interests.
Modi brought into play a proactive diplomacy instead of being defensive
Second, Modi has brought into play a kind of proactive diplomacy with the involvement of popular sentiments. During his time, India has not waited for the US to make things happen and play a second-fiddle role and that too, limited to bagging a strategic-psychological lead over Pakistan.
New Delhi now has decided to roll the ball by itself and seek resolution of outstanding issues and discover new fields of cooperation. PM Modi's invitation to President Obama to become the chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations in 2015, something which hasn't happened ever earlier, is a prime example of this. Rao had come close to such a feat in the mid 1990s but it did not eventually happen.
Modi is outcome-oriented; this has made the priorities in the bilateral relations clear
And finally, Modi's US policy is outcome oriented and hence flexible. Earlier, India's stand was mostly about defending ideologically rigid positions which disallowed important aspects of bilateral relations to move forward. Modi not just made his own side confident but also the Americans and this has helped Washington to respond with a matching eagerness.