Home / Current Affairs / TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan: Nehru, Indira and the Indo-US legacy

TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan: Nehru, Indira and the Indo-US legacy

Like a score of other heads of state before him, US President Barack Obama is about to face a gruellingly boring couple of hours on January 26. It probably serves him right for ignoring India ever since he became US President. Stupidly, he even forgot to mention India in his latest State of the Union address, delivered two days before he comes here.

Many old-fashioned Indians, especially retired foreign services types, will sigh in quiet contentment. For them, this will be India’s long-awaited revenge on America.

After all, it is no secret that until Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, Indian diplomacy was predicated on a simple formulation: American governments are anti-Indian.

Over the years, I frequently tried to find out how this perception had grown. My question was simple. Please cite just one instance of when US actions and or/advice had done India actual harm?

No real answer was forthcoming, even though many words were spoken. The burden of the song was that the US ignored us.

Then one day, a few years ago, I got an answer: a retired foreign secretary said the only thing he could think of – that did actual harm instead of an imaginary one – was the advice John F Kennedy gave to Jawaharlal Nehru to not to use the Air Force against the Chinese in 1962.

And, yes, we must not forget: it was the Americans, and not our bosom friends, the Russians, who came to our aid in 1962. They sided with China.

That aside, as harmful US acts go, many have muttered about 1971 when the US openly sided with Pakistan. But, remember, no harm came to India as a result of that support.

Prejudiced Indian
What explains the anti-US attitude in Indian officialdom? Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about it, but when you come right down to it, the prejudice came from the very top.

Both Nehru and Indira Gandhi developed an antipathy to the US but for entirely personal reasons. US policy had very little to do with it.

The late Sarvepalli Gopal, historian and biographer of Nehru, has written that Nehru was most upset that the US gave exactly the same sort of reception – confetti to confetti almost – to Liaquat Ali Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister in 1952, as it had to Nehru. His ego was deeply hurt.

Likewise, Indira Gandhi became anti-US despite US help on the food front (PL-480) and defence (1962-64). This happened when, after she had personally negotiated the rupee devaluation of 1966 on the promise of aid, it was withheld. In case you are interested, Volume 2 of the Reserve Bank of India’s history has a brief account of her negotiations.

Lyndon Johnson treated her badly, though he did ask her to dance with him. That annoyed her even more. Richard Nixon also treated her shabbily.

She turned firmly anti-American after that. Also, during 1969-71, she was dependent on Communist support in Parliament for survival.

More amazingly, even as they claimed non-alignment, both Nehru and Indira Gandhi turned to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and then blamed the US for being nasty to India. But the USSR’s technology was useless. Its support, except when it used the veto in the UN Security Council, was also useless. The KGB interfered in internal affairs. Worse, it collapsed in 1990.

And guess who India turned to after that? Not Cuba, for sure.

Un-ugly American
All this happened despite the fact that US advice – when taken – actually helped India enormously. One now-forgotten instance is the advice given in the mid-1960s, which eventually led to the Green Revolution and liberation from famines.

The US also throughout gave us the same industrial advice as it did to East Asia – go for labour-intensive, export-oriented production. They took it and prospered. We didn’t and failed.

In 1948, the US had offered preferential access to Indian goods in return for some mess of pottage from India. Nehru failed to act on it because of other preoccupations.

In 1978, China also took the advice that the East Asians had taken. It has emerged as a global power that is challenging the US. We didn’t and a billion Indians are paying the price.

The irony
There is, however, one major instance when US actions led to a lot of harm being done to India. This was in the 1980s when, ironically, Rajiv Gandhi had decided to reverse India’s persistent anti-American attitude.

One, of course, was the tacit go-ahead to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. This has been widely documented.

The other is less well known: the acceptance of Zia ul-Haq’s condition that in return for help in Afghanistan, Pakistan would be free to do as it pleased against India, short of a ‘military adventure’. The US agreed.

Pakistan started with Punjab and went on to Kashmir. It is only recently – after Pakistan-based terrorism started to hurt it – that the US has taken back that support.

The only mitigating aspect of our absurd US policy is that every genuine friend of the US has behaved in exactly the same way with it.


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