Here we go again. Narendra Modi’s impending election victory has raised hopes that the man and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can revive India’s sputtering economy and give new élan to a disillusioned and rudderless U.S.-India relationship.

It seems eons ago, but only a few years prior, India and China were spoken in the same breath as the rising BRIC powers reshaping the world. No more. India now appears anemic, left in the dust by a China with a GDP and military budget four times larger and, most telling of all, by Beijing’s strategic focus and assertiveness. And one need look no further than Delhi’s support for Putin’s aggression in Crimea to see how far India and the United States have strayed from hopes of a budding strategic partnership between the two largest democracies.

In the West, new generations have been “discovering” Asia ever since the spice trade. In recent years, few phenomena have been as recurrently fashionable as the belief that the United States and India are “natural partners,” with India holding a special place in U.S. foreign policy priorities.

This belief became fashionable after the Cold War, and U.S. officials tirelessly touted it after 1991. Rhetoric from successive U.S. administrations has cast India as Big Emerging Market, as Strategic Partner, as Essential Asian Balancer [of China] and, in an enduring definition supposedly clinching India’s favorable treatment of U.S. goals, as World’s Biggest Democracy. Yet since 1991, the formal bilateral relationship has gone through many stop-and-go cycles.

The conceit then, and now, lies in the assumption that the United States’ overlapping interests with India — and there are many — lead automatically to collaboration, or even common purpose. India has always been a prickly, autonomous actor. Even when common purpose seemed within reach, India’s occasionally insecure, periodically venal, and always self-conflicted elite bureaucracy — the external affairs and defense ministries in particular — obstructed even the most unspoken convergences of approach.

With Modi in place, the boom part of the cycle is about to start again. A BJP-dominated central government, led by a proven Thatcher-like and market-orientedHindu conservative, is likely to prompt another cascade of hype, aided by an enthusiastic new generation of Indian-Americans.

Why mention this downside? The answer lies in what both countries’ ex-colonial master, the British, have tended to say about all big ideas — that “the wish is father to the thought.” The linkages between the United States and India remain more aspirational than accomplished, with many unfulfilled expectations. India’s post-1991 economic reforms, heavily hyped back then despite their halfway measures, have long since run out of steam.

It’s now been more than two decades since the “wish” (i.e., a “natural” convergence of Indo-U.S. strategic, commercial, and “people-to-people” interests) fathered the “thought” (that all this was well on its way to fruition). To put it mildly, it has fallen short of U.S. expectations — a result that stems from talking up the place too much, versus quietly working in areas with genuinely convergent interests.

The problem persists. A visit last December to India revealed a nervous Indian elite, fearful of China and apprehensive about an India-U.S. relationship that has lost its compass, if not raison d’etre. For starters, most of the bilateral commissions that adorn the bureaucratized structure of the formal relationship should be abandoned. Indeed, when we were in government, senior Indian officials often suggested we rationalize and reduce these.

Many old ideas have been retired, partly because the woefully undermanned Indian Foreign Service (which is roughly the size of Singapore’s) allocates about as many people to monitor U.S.-India ties as it does for lesser connections with Brazil or South Africa. This remains legacy stuff from what the service still sees as India’s glory days, Delhi’s hectoring prominence in the Non-Aligned Movement.

Given that reality, plus the difficulty of doing business in India, it’s no surprise that the U.S.-India relationship has been weighted toward defense issues, from the nuclear accord to military-to-military ties.

The lesson of the post-Cold War reinvention of U.S.-India ties that began under Clinton is that the Indians play Washington far better than we play Delhi. Both capitals are “open cities,” where embassies have very good access to each other’s policy officials. Americans empower the “South Block” (the wing of Indian central government buildings which houses the foreign service and the defense ministry) far more than it deserves.

At the end of the last Bush administration, both of us tried to introduce visiting senior U.S. officials to a rarely cultivated group of influential Indians, while ignoring the default guest list of Indian Foreign Service officials. Secretary Robert Gates had lunch with men and women with red ochre marks on the forehead, incomplete dental work, and black Barry Goldwater eyeglasses — all pro-American and all influential.

In ways most Americans cannot see, the Indian Foreign Service remains instinctively anti-American, due to a complex reaction of wannabe insecurities, Cold War legacy issues (India chose the losing side, with Moscow still its main arms supplier), and the non-aligned mentality. This is why the arrest in New York of an apparently misbehaving Indian consular official a few months ago (for mistreating a servant) caused such uproar. It’s not news that some in the Indian Foreign Service mistreat their servants: it’s just not discussed. We are left to wonder about how many Indian diplomats, serving Asia’s new Great Power, are really striving to ameliorate ill treatment of hundreds of thousands Indian contract workers in quasi-bonded servitude in the Persian Gulf?

Whether in diplomacy or commerce, it rarely wins points to talk up an initiative currently in play. In the George W. Bush administration, senior diplomats often appeared in the pages of heavyweight foreign affairs publications to tout the U.S.-India relationship. Not only did these paeans occasionally seem self-aggrandizing but, and more important, these screeds (“Look, we’ve noticed you, we think you’re important”) simply empowered our putative friends at the foreign service and gave them something for nothing.

The next phase

The Modi era may offer a chance to recast U.S.-India ties in more realist mode. To the degree Modi succeeds in re-energizing India’s economy (as he has done impressively as chief minister of Gujarat), he will give substance, and not hot air, to a deeper U.S.-India partnership. Perhaps the foundering efforts at a bilateral investment treaty, or even the prospect thatIndia may eventually join the trans-Pacific Partnership, could shape a realistic, forward-looking bilateral agenda.

Modi’s success will depend on how effectively he empowers the private sector and how he implements the next belated phase of market-centered reforms. With nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people under 26, few Indians can even recall the 1991 reforms. India’s youth bulge can be an enormous asset or liability, depending on whether the government finds a fix for the woeful general education system and its linkage to job creation.

The new generation remains very focused on precisely that issue — jobs and the lack thereof. In the coming generation, nearly two-thirds of India’s citizens will dwell in urban areas, with an estimated 300 millionadded over the next 25 years. One can only imagine the gargantuan infrastructure needs (and also the investment opportunities) that lie ahead.

What can past U.S.-India ties illustrate about the conduct of the relationship? For starters, don’t flatter Delhi policymakers and elite bureaucrats, especially not from a position of strength. Too often, our Indian friends adopt the mien of an Oriental Potentate, reclining on a divan and signaling by body language how slowly the United States came to its senses in recognizing India as the Navel of the Cosmos.

Most of all, stay clear of “wish”-driven agendas, driven by the American desire for a “natural ally” in South Asia. Delhi has its own reasons to be wary of China, as Modi stressed during his campaign. But don’t expect allegiance to U.S. views on China or major global issues.

These days, Washington policy-mongers and much of the corporate world either hyperventilates or slouches in deep despair. Either India is THE Big Thing, or it’s a corrupt, endlessly exasperating waste of time. Of course, it’s neither. A more modest, focused, and realistic agenda can put the U.S.-India relationship on a more enduring foundation.

The economic piece is critical. A robust Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) and trade liberalization would be measures of seriousness, and their use would deepen the reach of stakeholders in both nations. Another obvious focus, given India’s IT prowess, should be cyber stability — where an already extant Indo-U.S. consensus on cyber norms and practices can go a much longer way towards shaping global rules.

The second foundation remains security cooperation, and by this we mean more than the occasional multi-nation naval exercise or the spate of joint training by different service arms. We now speak of the “Indo-Pacific region” for good reason, and India’s own “Look East” policies have also deepened its ties with Southeast and Northeast Asia. We are already seeing India increasing security cooperation with Japan andAustralia.

In the face of growing Chinese anti-access capabilities,the so-called Anti-Access Area Denial problem, the United States, India, and most other Asian allies and security partners share a vital interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. This suggests deepening efforts to fashion a countering network, one that entails cooperative maritime and surveillance capabilities, cyber networking, and far deeper regional naval coordination.

As Modi goes, we suspect, so also will go a rejuvenated partnership with India, one based on bedrock interests, not romanticized wishes. Both countries can and should build a solid, and necessarily more modest partnership, than has been wished since 1991.