“There is obviously a great deal of rethinking” in India, Braj Kumar Nehru once said to President John F. Kennedy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin — the Indian ambassador to the United States of America, the younger Nehru — made these candid confessions days after Chinese troops stormed Indian territory in October 1962. B.K. Nehru’s primary objective was to make sure to convey the undeniable change that had taken root within India. Working with the US and seeking arms assistance — evidenced in C-130 sorties dropping ammunition and other equipment in Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport— were then thought to be critical. Indeed, they were.
Apart from the fact that this episode in India’s then nascent post -Independence history would remain etched in the minds and hearts of future generations, it did something else: reconstructed political India. American interlocutors, such as John Kenneth Galbraith —then the American ambassador to India — recognized this immediately. “Change,” Galbraith argued, was all too clear. Prime Minister Nehru himself took to the pen and authored an instructive piece for the American journal, Foreign Affairs, titled “Changing India”. American officials, including those much more sceptical of India’s fortunes, too were convinced. India, according to these insiders, would work more closely with the US, minus the need to engage in charged commentary couched in the language of anti-American imperialism. Yet, as Kennedy told a senior Congress MP months after the China War, India “swung back” to its “usual” position of “un-alignment” and colonial sabre rattling once the fog of danger lifted.
To an extent, this is, of course, true. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s predecessor, was less than enchanted by Indira Gandhi’s vocal opposition to the manner and method of American intervention in Vietnam. President Nixon’s decision to side with Yahya Khan in 1971 — just as Yahya’s regime sought to persecute the Bangla speaking population in East Pakistan — expectantly did nothing for Indira Gandhi and her freshly appointed cabinet. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding these minutes of crises, there was never really a moment during which Indian and American representatives stopped talking to each other. A difficult-to-understand strain of a mutual need for engagement outpaced bureaucratic prejudice for the opposite.
To be sure, whilst the India-US relationship was constantly re-anchored during much of the Cold War, academic admission of the same was late in coming. Liberalization and India’s new-found want for market economics pushed observers to recognize a ‘changing India’. To be sure, it was not until India (and Pakistan) went nuclear that both Indian and American — read Clinton administration — officials thought it necessary to open a backchannel for debate, one which did much to reset the contours of a relationship widely recognized to be of critical importance as early as in the 1960s. Unlike in the 1960s, there was room for equal appreciation for the position of each other on issues of discussion. As is well documented, the Bush administration capitalized on such merits and helped alter an association of sorts beyond what Bill Clinton or the backchannel envisaged.
The visit to India by the US vice president, Joseph Biden, has re-invited the need and desire — at least, according to commentators — to create yet new merits for dialogue with the view to further cement a partnership that, many argue, risks losing its vitality. To some extent, this is a strawman thesis. This is not a relationship that only needs an occasional dose of something invigorating, but also sustained dialogue on a whole range of issues. Two points perhaps merit attention.
First, analysts appear hypnotized by what the Bush administration and the United Progressive Alliance-I government did for India-US relationship, that is, break with international norms of non-proliferation to accommodate Indian preferences. It is often argued that the Obama administration requires something similar. The idea, according to this line of argument, is to introduce something dramatic. This is largely impossible and utterly unrealistic. The civil-nuclear agreement with India was a milestone that simply cannot be replicated by way of trade and licence agreements, toggling foreign direct investment limitations, or even by tweaking the number of work visas for Indian professionals.
Instead, and rather than raising expectations every time a senior American representative visits India, it is perhaps more fruitful to better coordinate how the less dramatic but significant initiatives mentioned above can be institutionalized. The perceived inability to offer staged outcomes ought not to undermine strides in duller matters of economic exchange and commerce that require great deal of attention, especially in America. The dire state of the rupee and India’s general fiscal health urgently require high dignitaries like Biden to fight India’s corner on Capitol Hill. In the early 1950s, Chester Bowles —the third US ambassador to India after Independence — faced intense criticism in Washington and from his own Democratic Party for speaking up for India when most had lost faith in what was considered to be a socialist State drawn more to Moscow than to the West. Bowles’s inspiration for India paid in the end. It convinced the likes of Kennedy to disentangle an irritated past in the hope of a brighter future. His administration’s immediate response to the 1962 Emergency was not mere spontaneity.
Importantly, Bowles focused on what was possible, endearing his Indian counterparts to capitalize on the same. It is perhaps time for Indian representatives to zero-in on what is needed but feasible, allowing those like Biden to capitalize on the same. Crucially, this is by no means a prescription to woo the opposite side, but to play the part of a convincer in a relationship where one or both sides require occasional convincing.
Second, much like the Kennedy and Clinton administration before, Obama officials appear convinced that Kashmir lies at the heart of Pakistani anxieties. In recent years, and certainly ever since Barack Obama was elected in the latter quarter of 2008, the idea that India’s relationship with Pakistan lies at the centre of all the troubles within Afghanistan has lingered. In no small measure, this is both convenient and utterly untested. Yet, James Dobbins, the newly appointed (May 2013) US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, alludes to such dated calculations. Presumably, Biden discussed at least the light outlines of such logic with his Indian counterparts. It is high time that India, and the present government in particular, made an end to such speculations and American-led experiments.
There is little doubt that Pakistani anxieties vis-à-vis India persist, but to presuppose that better India-Pakistan relations will dramatically alter the fortunes of Afghanistan is both irresponsible and impracticable. Kennedy understood this all too well. After having being hoodwinked by the likes of Galbraith to barter military assistance for a deal on Kashmir in 1962 and 1963, the president finally realized that “this was impossible.” India’s approach to Pakistan, he learnt, was better “left to India to determine.” The desperation in America to find even a partial answer to Afghanistan’s future is understandable, but creating potential solutions out of misguided questions is hazardous. To be sure, Kennedy’s experiment with Kashmir risked fracturing a relationship that took principals in both countries years to strengthen. Surely, in the quest to find new merits, it can only be wise to side-step known and proven demerits.