Over the barrel: A brief history of India-US relations

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February 8, 2021 5:30 AM

The US and India are structurally bound. They have common democratic values and convergent geopolitical, economic and strategic interests. The personal predilections of Presidents and Prime Ministers can weaken the bond, but not rupture them

US-India relations started to turn around under Carter.US-India relations started to turn around under Carter.

Meenakshi Ahamed has written a timely, lucid and comprehensive book on the relationship between India and the US. ‘A Matter Of Trust: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump’ is an account of the twists and turns on the road travelled by the leaders of the two countries over 75 years. The book is timely for the good reason that it provides the new Joe Biden administration a well-researched and scholarly handbook on the issues that have defined US-India relations; it is insightful because it goes beyond broad-brush analysis to highlight the impactful influence of individual idiosyncrasies. It is an excellent read because interwoven between commentary and analyses are nuggets of revelatory information. This book is a must read not just for those involved with the bilateral relationship, but also for those interested in “history without theory.”

The road from Truman to Trump has passed through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama, and their counterpart Prime Ministers in India. It has not been a straight road and, at times, it has reversed direction; it has met many obstacles and it has often been marked by the signpost ‘Hard Times’; ‘Great Expectations’ have, however, enabled the travellers to find a bypass. (Meena attributed this Dickensian characterisation of US-India relations to a Minister in the Indian government).

Not surprisingly, every US President has come to office with a personal view on India. These views have seldom reflected a deep understanding of India’s history, culture or even politics. They have reflected personal proclivities and prejudice, experience and anecdotes. Once in the Oval Office and even though overlaid by domestic priorities and expert advice, these views have often had a subliminal and, at times, unintended influence on policy.

Truman, for instance, saw India as a “distant country with no direct bearing on US political interests.” He made no effort to inform himself about the country, or to develop a relationship with Nehru. His focus was the reconstruction of post-war Europe. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was more empathetic, perhaps because of appreciation of the role played by Indian soldiers during the war, but he was straitjacketed somewhat by the ‘moralising religiosity’ of his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who did not understand nationalism and thought that Nehru’s policy of non-alignment was a ‘moral betrayal’. His Vice-President Richard Nixon was also more at home in the company of the ‘hail fellow well met’ blustering hospitality of the Pakistani leadership than the harder-edged intellectualism of Nehru. America forged a military alliance with Pakistan during this presidency. Kennedy endeavoured to correct this hyphenated imbalance and appointed the pro-India, Harvard Professor John Kenneth Galbraith as the Ambassador to India, and sent his wife Jackie to charm the Indian leadership. These initiatives did bear results—economic aid and military support picked up appreciably during this period—but then there was the assassination. Johnson was no Kennedy. He believed in ‘tough love’ and ‘self-help’ and was obsessively niggardly about food aid to India. He did not take to Mrs Indira Gandhi, which she reciprocated in full measure. These personal antipathies carried over and deepened under the Nixon presidency. Encouraged by Kissinger, Nixon labelled Mrs Gandhi a ‘warmonger’ bent on slicing Pakistan, whilst Mrs Gandhi regarded Nixon as an accomplice in the Bangladesh genocide. Whatever residual good may have existed evaporated completely during this presidency. Ford did not help relations by lifting the arms embargo on Pakistan.

US-India relations started to turn around under Carter. He received positive press by not stopping over in Pakistan during his State visit to India. His successor Reagan had no particular interest in India—his focus was on combating the evil empire of Communism—but he liked Rajiv Gandhi and so cast a benevolent eye on the request for spare parts for the Tarapur Atomic Power Station; Bush 41, who probably knew more about India than any of his predecessors because of his past experience as the Ambassador to China and CIA director, appreciated the consequential impact of a conflict on the subcontinent. He broke with past US policy to take an explicitly pro-India stand on the India-Pakistan issue. He told Pakistan that in the event of a war in the subcontinent, America would withdraw all assistance to it. Clinton recognised India’s economic potential and built on these strengthened foundations. Despite Pokhran (which triggered sanctions), he used his presidential heft to get Pakistan to pull back from Kargil. Bush 43 transformed relations to a higher strategic platform by pushing the civil nuclear deal through Congress. Senator Obama was critical of this deal (as was Senator Biden), but as President he did not redraw its contours and after an avoidable (and probably unintended) ‘insult’, when he failed to mention India during a speech in Japan about the emergent powers in Asia, he acknowledged India’s pivotal role in countering China and reoriented US policy accordingly. He did not, however, appoint heavyweights to the India desk, as a result of which the goodwill generated by his predecessor was not fully realised. Also, whilst he respected Manmohan Singh for his intellect and moral character, he saw him as a shackled leader. Trump saw India through his narcissistic prism, but he received some credit for cancelling $300 million of military aid to Pakistan.

One thread runs across Meena’s riveting tour d’horizon: The US and India are structurally bound. They have common democratic values and convergent geopolitical, economic and strategic interests. The personal predilections of Presidents and Prime Ministers can weaken the bond, but not rupture them totally. The fact is that none of these leaders took to each other. None developed a personal connect with their counterpart. And yet the ties did improve, albeit episodically. That said, individuals do matter. The pace of further development of relations will depend crucially on the quality, knowledge and influence of the people that President Biden appoints to his India desk.

The author is chairman, Centre for Social and Economic Progress

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