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Friday , January 31 , 2014
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Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 By Rudra Chaudhuri, Hurst, Rs 1,850

The purpose of this book is simply told: during each of seven critical ‘key turning points’ in diplomacy that India shared with the United States of America, the storm was weathered by New Delhi, and stronger links with America were forged as a result of a growing appreciation in Washington of India’s non-alignment policy to which the Indian leadership through the decades had adhered staunchly. The crises selected for examination by the author are Indian food and arms scarcity in 1947-8, the Korean War, the Chinese invasion, pressures on India to accommodate Pakistan on Kashmir after 1962, the birth of Bangladesh, the US invasion of Iraq and the nuclear deal of 2005-8. One may question the importance of those landmarks, but the broader question is whether the author satisfactorily makes his point.

The book’s structure is an essay on each crisis and an introduction detailing the initial adverse opinions held by the Americans about India and the Indian leadership. The US perception of India was “less than flattering” because India’s intention was to treat the US on an equal footing based on mutuality of interest, and the US was taken aback to be negotiating with a nation convinced of its exceptionality — which might reveal the extent to which America lacked a basic knowledge of India. Surely, here, the US should have seen a mirror image of itself. Indian appeals for arms, investments, food and economic aid were ignored or rejected because Indian stances did not support the West in the Cold War and a commercial treaty proposed by America fell by the wayside to avoid the “menace of entanglement”. Rudra Chaudhuri asserts that the decades after 1947 were the lost half century, which ignores US food aid, assistance for the green revolution, setting up of the IITs and Tarapur nuclear plant, help in obtaining assistance from the IMF and IBRD, the supply of a super-computer, and being the leading trade partner. He also contends that India’s relationship with the US was “the most comprehensive and significant” for India, which overlooks the intense relationship with the USSR from the death of Stalin to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In the Korean crisis, the heyday of Nehruvian non-alignment, Indian diplomacy sought balance, reconciliation and a place in the United Nations for communist China, which grated on the White House, but this was vice versa as well. During the Chinese invasion in 1962, while India sought joint air defence together with American personnel and supplies of fighters and transports, “India’s deep and complex approach…withstood the temptation of alliances despite the tragedy of defeat”. US and Britain sought to pressurize India to settle Kashmir with Pakistan in return for military assistance. Pakistan was regarded a pillar against communism by the West and the influence of the US and UK was tilted towards Pakistan. Nehru complained about their “ill considered and ill conceived initiatives”, but India did not yield. This did not prevent the relationship between India and US reaching a special depth of mutual discernment. Despite a US inclination towards Pakistan again in the Bangladesh war, this tilt was corrected almost immediately. Indira Gandhi had an “instinct for non-alignment” and notwithstanding the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty and Kissinger’s secret trip to China to forge an anti-Soviet anti-Indian alliance, India had not “jeopardized its own strength, self-help or self confidence”. Despite temptations to forge a closer understanding with the only super-power by contributing an Indian contingent during the US invasion of Iraq, in the absence of an explicit UN mandate, India stood firm despite mounting pressure. Once again, this did not affect India’s growing ties with US.

The nuclear deal with US, then described as the deal of the century, did not “entrap India into a network of American alliances”. Between “independence and the material need to work more closely” with the US, the idea of “autonomy stood firm”. The deal changed the norms of non-proliferation and the US capitulated to “India’s every wish”, but that was because President George W. Bush wanted the deal to enlist India as a strategic partner against China. The author’s conclusion is that non-alignment is “entrenched in the vocabulary of India’s past, present and future”. Each Indo-US crisis forged a better sense of each other’s motivations and aspirations.

Chaudhuri castigates previous scholars, including Gopal and Tharoor. His predecessors have “harped on petty matters”, “omit or simply overlook” data, indulged in “casual...weakly grounded …unsophisticated…simplistic” analysis, “uncritical labeling” and “unsubstantiated conclusions”. Such criticism is unwise, because Chaudhuri commits many mistakes: he calls general elections General Assembly elections, Booth instead of Gore-Booth, Un Nu instead of U Nu; the Non-Aligned Movement was not even thought of in 1955, the McMahon Line was delineated, never demarcated; it was not the US Seventh fleet as such that was ordered to the Bay of Bengal in 1971, but only ten vessels thereof. C.V. Wedgwood was a historian, not a poet, Natwar Singh was not secretary-general of the Non-Aligned Movement but only secretary-general of the non-aligned conference in 1983 — and so on.

The author’s language is curious; hence, Nehru “stumbled upon” the League against Colonial Oppression, people “meet with” and “reach out to” others, officials were “equally endeared by Brigadier Chaudhuri”, Russia is “stepping up to the plate”, and accounts are “inked” by scholars. Chaudhuri uses exercise instead of excise, élites instead of senior officials, in aid of instead of “as an aide of”, predisposition instead of prediction, entice instead of interest, and other solecisms too numerous to recount.

The book is like the proverbial curate’s egg — good in parts. Chaudhuri is diligent about his sources; there is a plethora of quotation, frequently of only one or two words. For those who appreciate detail, 103 pages out of 368 comprise 1689 references, bibliography and index. So we have a great deal of minutiae; who said what to whom, and when. For readers who like their narrative laced with the red meat of national pride and uncritical admiration of our political leaders, this is a book for them.