It’s well evinced that the ignominious late United States’ President Richard Nixon, who was disgraced from office, reviled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ad nauseam. He despised her, if not despised India, and all things Indian itself.
Gary Bass’ riveting ‘Blood Telegrams’ documents Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s complicity in overlooking the atrocities committed by West Pakistan in East Pakistan in the build-up to the 1971 war. Recently, Bass penned an Op-ed, based on declassified intel, a treasure trove of White House tapes that accentuate Nixon’s abhorrence towards Gandhi and India.
Call it misogyny, bigotry, racism or an insidious combination of the three, Nixon was caught on tape even making denigrating remarks on Indira Gandhi’s looks. Mukul Kesavan’s beautifully quips “why someone as peculiar-looking as Nixon would even venture a view on the ugliness of other people. Say what you like about Indira Gandhi’s politics, in the looks department she was Rita Hayworth to his W.C. Fields”.
Nixon abhorred India for a few reasons, one of them being where he saw India as a nuisance, one that was intervening in the “internal affairs” of West Pakistan and a direct hindrance to his natural ally Yahya Khan of West Pakistan who played a vital role in Nixon’s olive branch to Beijing.
For long, the political pundits sat on the fence debating administration to administration, which party and president would embody kindred spirits with New Delhi.
Among the Democratic presidents, Woodrow Wilson, who was in office during World War I, did very little to forward India’s cause for Independence. US President Harry Truman received Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949 and refused to help with economic or food aid to India. Truman also did little to aid India in resolving the Kashmir dispute. Nehru’s 1961 talks with US President John F Kennedy were, at best, described as lukewarm, and the charismatic young president went as far as to rate it the “worst state visit ever.” JFK also took a passive stance on China’s invasion of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in 1962.
JFK’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson, also a Democrat, didn’t back India during the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, and when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi voiced her disapproval of the bombings in Vietnam, LBJ rolled back on the promised supply of wheat to India. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, met Prime Minister Morarji Desai but wasn’t keen to ship enriched uranium for the Tarapur nuclear plant.
Of course, some positives can be made on the other side of the aisle. US President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, accentuated the Indian independence movement. The Eisenhower administration witnessed historic blunders committed by its Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in South Asia. However, Eisenhower, doubled economic aid to India and approved the food programme. Eisenhower then become the first US President to visit Independent India in 1959. Republican Ronald Reagan initiated closer technology ties with the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
There were anomalies to the rule as well. The legendary Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, lent support to the British during World War II on the condition that Britain would grant India independence. Of course, Republican President Richard Nixon, dare I say more.
Partisanship and pugnacious stances from days of yore from Washington to Delhi was because India was a different country back then. It wasn’t seen as a burgeoning economic powerhouse in the making; but in fact, was it seen as a large landmass with economic shackles of a Soviet socialist era, mollycoddling to Moscow and one that was never going to be an ‘American ally’ in its quest to deter the pervasive spread of communism, nor drink the American Kool-Aid of capitalism.
The robust partnership between New Delhi and Washington rests on pillars of strategic partnership of defence and coalescing on foreign policy goals such as The Quad and mitigating a belligerent Chinese threat, and aspiring to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. With a burgeoning economy, India has been alluring for the last three decades for US multinational firms to expand to the subcontinent, a strong diaspora connection epitomised by Indian Americans at the highest echelons of the public and private sector, further accentuated by potentially the first US Vice President of Indian origin. Last but not least, the secret sauce for the synergy lies in the understanding of shared democratic values.
India has long-come from its days of being dependent on the PL-480 food aid programmes, to one where India and United States go to toe on trade brouhahas at the World Trade Organization. The aid-to-trade story is both a remarkable transformation of India’s growth story and the US-India synergy.Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.