The history of the relationship between India and the United States of America has all the makings of a torrid tale. Hollywood would say, “It’s complicated.” Bollywood would probably call the Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa affair as Love Aaj Kal.
It is hard to explain why Indo-US friendship with so much going for it has travelled so little. The script and cast have both played a part as has the contrasting style of articulation—the transactional straight line expectation vis-à-vis the very Indian jalebi formulation. Jilted, forsaken are phrases that do not lend themselves to the occasion for repair, but the inescapable fact is that plans of Happily Ever After have often resulted in Kill Dil.
India and the US shared a vibrant relationship in the Fifties. Jawaharlal Nehru engaged with the Americans for their scientific prowess and for the big ideas—the Bhakra Nangal project was conceived when Nehru visited Tennessee River Valley. The Americans reciprocated—even if spurred by the need to stall the advance of Communism. Harry Truman passed a special law in 1951, the India Emergency Food Aid Act, to help India with food aid. India was the largest beneficiary of the PL 480 programme. The IITs, the research labs for agriculture, the IIMs, the Tarapur atomic power station, even the first phase of green revolution, were made possible with American cooperation.
And then in the Sixties, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The script changed with the personalities. To get him off his back, John F Kennedy sent Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson on a tour of Asia. India was one destination. The meeting with Nehru was a disaster, but Johnson hit it off with dictators—most notably with Ayub Khan in Pakistan and in the words of his aide George E Reedy, Johnson and Ayub Khan “were like blood brothers inside of three minutes of the meeting”.
It is not often recognised that within a decade, the US had forsaken India to befriend a military dictator in Pakistan and Mao in China. The Indo-US saga is one of broken promises and dismantled principles. Ergo, it is important to know the past to build a future. When Team Obama prepares for this visit, it must revisit the factoids of history if they plan to build an enduring relationship.
The litany of broken promises is long. The US backed out of funding the steel plant at Bokaro—finally completed by the Russians. Kennedy wanted peace talks on Kashmir and shifted the stance on arms sales to Pakistan—it fought the 1965 war with American Patton tanks. Post the war, food aid was stopped and Johnson described India as a “ship to mouth economy”. In 1966, India was hit by drought and an economic crisis. The US promised help. Conditions included major reforms, re-induction of capitalism into the planned economy, rupee devaluation and opening up of markets. Indira Gandhi devalued the rupee by 36.5 per cent, export duties were imposed and imports liberalised. The promised help and aid though didn’t materialise; delay was instrument of denial.
Memory and history are both contextual and are often revised for convenience. The popular myth among many in the US State Department is that the rift dates to the time when India dumped non-alignment and signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. India did not shift. It was pushed. Fact is, the Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union had been offered as early as in September 1969. Indira didn’t sign it despite being jilted at the altar of capitalism. It was only after July 1971—after Henry Kissinger visited China and signalled where the US stood vis-à-vis Pakistan—that Indira sent D P Dhar to Moscow to sign the treaty in August 1971.
And it was Indira who took the right turn, sending B K Nehru to seek out Ronald Reagan even before he took office and then met him at Cancun to re-engage with America. It was Indira who pushed the first Indo-US Science and Technology Agreement. This was taken forward by Rajiv Gandhi. In 1991, it was Chandra Shekhar who saw the contours of the world post the fall of the Berlin wall. He backed US action in the Gulf War, allowed refuelling of US military aircraft and arm-twisted— with the help of Subramanian Swamy—to back an IMF bailout for India.
Indo-US relationship has been a roller coaster of trust and distrust. John Galbraith once said, “The East, as you know, is inscrutable.” Perhaps! But so is American foreign policy to the Indian administrations. Take the current context—the chasm between promise and non-delivery on shutting down state-sponsored terror from Pakistan. The US has imposed sanctions on every country sponsoring terrorism or using force whether it is Iran, Syria or even Russia—Pakistan is the exception.
The need for a strong Indo-US partnership, to paraphrase an American slang, is a “no-brainer”. India is the largest and the US the oldest democracy—the eugenics of geopolitics is in place. There is no disputing the “people connect” nor the potential of economic cooperation. The US needs a market for technology and returns for its capital. India—once the fastest growing free market economy—seeks technology and capital to grow. This mutualism is an imperative. But let not commerce make this a mere transaction.
This is a historic opportunity for the US to be on the right side of democracy and for India to possess its power place in the world order.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change