THE US’ FLIP-FLOP on supplying crucial vaccine raw materials to India ended with a memorable and generous admission by its president, Joe Biden. ‘India was there for us, and we will be there for them,’ he tweeted on April 26th, minutes after speaking to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Biden personally promised every possible assistance in what has literally turned out to be our life and death struggle against the coronavirus pandemic still raging across our land. The US has offered, in addition to the requested vaccine ingredients, life-saving drugs such as remdesivir, favipiravir and tocilizumab, PPE kits, oxygen, ventilator, even vaccines.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was quick to confirm that POTUS had pledged “America’s steadfast ongoing support for the people of India, who have been impacted by the recent surge in the Covid-19 cases.” However, just a couple of days earlier, on April 22nd, Ned Price, State Department spokesperson, had struck a harsher, if not indifferent note, “We have a special responsibility to the American people…We will, of course, always do as much as we can, consistent with our first obligation.” Incensed Indians were quick to quip, “We told you so. Never trust the Americans. They only think of themselves.”
Actually, a lot of work had gone on behind the scenes before the restoration of bonhomie in Indo-US ties. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India, had directly appealed to Biden to ‘lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the US so that vaccine production can ramp up.’ To make that happen, S Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister and Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, discussed the issue as did National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan.
Yet, what these recent moves on both sides have shown is pretty clear. Far from being a vaccine superpower or the pharmacy to the world, India is still sorely dependent on other nations, especially the US and China. Given the number and range of countries that we are seeking help from, it may also be time to revise the rhetoric of Atmanirbhar Bharat. In an intensely interconnected world, self-reliance does not preclude seeking help from, or rendering assistance to, others. A realistic assessment of our place in the world, rather than vaunted self-confidence, might be more appropriate.
Lest we forget, our own attitude to the US slid and backtracked considerably before being established, gradually since the 1990s, on firmer footing. Our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, considered himself the leader of the non-aligned world in addition to being an anti-imperialist. His somewhat sanctimonious and hectoring attitude, in addition to India’s posture of moral superiority, made him unpopular in Washington.
Despite many opportunities and considerable encouragement from his US counterparts, Nehru was unable to strike a personal rapport with any of the four presidents whose terms coincided with his—Harry S Truman (1945-1953), Dwight D Eisenhower (1953-1961), John F Kennedy (1961-1963) and Lyndon B Johnson (1963-1969). As to Richard Nixon, who served as vice president under Eisenhower and later as US president (1969-1974), Nehru so antagonised him that Nixon despised not only Nehru but his daughter, Indira Gandhi, too. It is another matter that Gandhi as prime minister took India even tighter into the Soviet bear hug, which must have influenced Nixon’s China tilt.
Yet, we must remember that the US took its India policy very seriously, especially in the first decades after our independence, no doubt with the design to counterbalance rising red China. This is attested to by the amount of interest that its Secretaries of State, Dean Acheson (1949-1953) under Truman and John Foster Dulles (1953-1959) under Eisenhower, took in Indian affairs. Chester Bowles served twice, from 1951-1953 and 1963-1969, as US ambassador to India. John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s India ambassador from 1961-1963, another tall American in many senses of the word, also endeared himself to Indians.
But if any US president had an early and well-thought-out India plan, it was the charismatic Kennedy, even though his presidency lasted less than three years, tragically cut down by his assassination on November 22nd, 1963. Back in May 1958, when he was still a Massachusetts Senator, he wrote an article, ‘Future of Democracy in India’, in Le Monde. Recently republished, it shows how far-reaching his proposal for an Indo-US partnership was.
After the bold opening declaration, ‘India is the key to a democratic Asia’, Kennedy, in association with Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, advocated a comprehensive US plan for India. Comparing the two Asian giants, China and India, he praised the latter for its two General Elections and its struggles to stabilise its society after the trauma of Partition. But also worried that ‘If India falls prey to internal disorder and the disappointment of its masses or its leaders, if it is absorbed into the communist system, the free world will suffer an incalculable setback.’ Kennedy offered to industrialise India on the lines of the Marshall Plan that resurrected Europe after World War II.
Biden personally promised every possible assistance in what has turned out to be our life and death struggle against the coronavirus pandemic still raging across our land. A lot of work had gone on behind the scenes before the restoration of bonhomie in Indo-US ties
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Kennedy also predicted that by the turn of the century, India had every chance of being a major power: ‘When considering the economic future of India, we would do well to remember…that it has thrown itself into an effort that will make of it one of the world’s great powers by the end of the century, with a population of almost a billion people, armed with all the resources of modern science, of technology, and of destruction.’
However, there was no reciprocal overture from India. Instead, Nehru, with his ideological prejudices and economic predilections, took our fledgling democracy in another direction. He even refused a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, offering it instead to Chairman Mao’s China.
Nehru’s aloofness to America and the Western world, his soft corner for the Soviet Union, plus his utter misjudgement of Chinese motives and machinations cost us dear. According to former Foreign Secretary Maharajakrishna Rasgotra and author of A Life in Diplomacy, Kennedy, after he got to know that China was trying to make the bomb, sent a handwritten letter to Nehru offering to help India with its nuclear programme. Kennedy ‘felt that democratic India, not communist China, should be the first Asian country to conduct a nuclear test’. Although well aware of India’s policy of ahimsa or non-violence, which included a strong and stated aversion to nuclear weapons, Kennedy advised Nehru, “Nothing is more important than national security.”
After gobbling up Tibet, when China actually attacked India in October 1962, Nehru wrote two desperate letters to Kennedy, both on November 19th. The first begins with an unconditional acknowledgement of American help in India’s hour of crisis: ‘We are extremely grateful to you and the Government and people of the United States of America for the practical support given to us. We particularly appreciate the speed with which the urgently needed small arms and ammunition were rushed to India’. At last, Nehru is also compelled to call out the big, neighbourly bully, China, whom he had so supported in the past: ‘We are facing a grim situation in our struggle for survival and in defending all that India stands for against an unscrupulous and powerful aggressor.’ He begs Kennedy for ‘air transport and jet fighters’ to save India.
The second letter is even more distressed, if not abject: ‘Within a few hours of despatching my earlier message of today, the situation in the N.E.F.A. Command has deteriorated still further. Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped between the Sala Ridge and Bomdila. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oil fields in Assam. With the advance of the Chinese in massive strength, the entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.’
These letters, now in the public domain, are a confession not only of Nehru’s Himalayan blunders vis-à-vis China but India’s sheer folly when it came to our American policy. Had India been a nuclear power before China, would the latter have dared to attack us in 1962?
The Modi years should be a time of golden opportunity to repair the past wrongs in the Indo-US relationship, as well as to take it to greater heights. Luckily, the old Cold War has ended and the new one has not yet begun. Our friendship with the US does not have to come at the cost of our ties with either Russia, or for that matter, China.