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THE US AND US
- Readable, but not exactly path-breaking

Waiting for America — India and the US in the New Millennium By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, HarperCollins, Rs 595

Indo-American relations have never been smooth, buffeted as they have been by frequent and prolonged lows and some highs, the latter overlaid with heavy doses of Indian emotionalism and wishful thinking. It is, for instance, easy to forget that Franklin Roosevelt was something of a hero in Indian eyes for interceding with Winston Churchill on granting independence to India.

Yet every Indian hope of better relations with the United States of America has come a cropper because relations between countries, particularly between those with lopsided power equations, are determined by hard-headed reasons of national interests and the countries’ interpretation of them. The only moment India was willing to move to a close American embrace — after the 1962 defeat in the border war with China — came and went. Washington hesitated and India recovered its equilibrium.

More recently, India’s exuberant approach to the Bush administration’s controversial missile defence plan and enthusiastic endorsement of the “war on terror” came to grief owing to the US’s compulsions in placating Pakistan. New Delhi’s fond dreams of American help in snuffing out the terrorism India faces went up in smoke.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave India its foreign policy and much else, was wrong in his assessment of China’s motivations and intentions and never fully recovered from the debacle of the brief border war. But he was right in espousing non-alignment which, apart from its philosophical underpinning, made much sense in giving the country, possessing little of the currency of power and in need of Western benevolence, maximum room for manoeuvre.

Nehru also exploited that rare asset in those days in the dusk of colonialism — articulateness and command over the English language. (What a sharp contrast it presents to the inarticulateness in English of the present crop of leaders!) Nehru was, indeed, an elegant representative of the developing world seeking a place in the sun.

Despite Indian hopes, the post-World War II trends were inimical to good relations with the US because the Cold War soon set in and the mind-set of the American ruling elite, principally John Foster Dulles, was to gather client states, not partners or allies in the developing world. In essence, the US was simply unwilling to give India the autonomy in regional policy-making it desired while Pakistan was more than willing to help, in order to get even with India.

The closeness of Indo-Soviet relations was the direct result of the rebuffs India received at American hands in its quest for arms and trade concessions. The Soviet Union, for its own reasons, was willing to give India the autonomy it wanted, as became apparent in the widening Sino-Soviet split. The momentum of New Delhi’s relations with Moscow gathered pace because of vigorous growth in the arms and trade relationship, the latter fuelled by the rupee trading arrangement. Its climax came with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, negotiated from India’s point of view with an eye on the looming war over East Pakistan.

Datta-Ray takes up the story of Indo-American relations in rather recent times. He has adopted a narrative, rather than an analytical, method of treatment. His prose is fluent, barring the use of the Indian-English term “time-bound”, for time-barred, and he laces his account with many asides and some amusing anecdotes. On occasion, he uses felicitous language (“In triumph as in tribulation, India lived by rhetoric”). His decision to pepper his account with quotations, testimony to his wide reading and research, gives a staccato effect. He could have made his story more fluent had he confined such quotations to footnotes. And he is tempted to indulge in “scoop journalism” by declaring (without substantiation) that the US had unsuccessfully egged India on twice to go nuclear.

However, one misses an overarching theme in Datta-Ray’s narrative, and it is troubling that he seems to endow Ashley J. Tellis, formerly of the Rand Corporation and now senior adviser to the US ambassador, Robert Blackwill, with the attributes of a guru. One does not read an Indian’s account of the Indo-US relationship to validate the words of wisdom of an American, however erudite he might be.

Datta-Ray makes the interesting point that a “de-hyphenated” American policy towards India and Pakistan would be to New Delhi’s disadvantage. But he tasks President George W. Bush with several missions: make General Pervez Musharraf see reason (on Kashmir) and help him survive, discourage Pakistani nuclear adventurism and make Islamabad come to terms with subcontinental geography (India’s size and strength). And he blithely leaves the ball in Washington’s court, suggesting that “India is waiting”.

India, the author asserts, is well placed to render service to the Lone Superpower in helping tame the rogue ideologues and providing intelligence on them.

One wishes Indo-US relations could be reduced to such simple formulations. Readable as Datta-Ray’s account is, one gets the feeling that it treads familiar ground without providing a new insight or taking the story further.

The simple fact is that Pakistan, geographically and strategically, is simply too valuable for the US, in its new messianic “war on terror” and its overarching ambition to rule the world, to be distracted by paying attention to Indian sensitivities. Yet most Indians still seem surprised by American realpolitik, the latest instance being the elaborate attempt by the Bush administration to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s deal in exchanging nuclear know-how for missiles, which would ordinarily have attracted stringent sanctions.

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