Nixon gave away Patricia pens and Carter recited the Gita and Obama brought a dog called Khan and...
Dwight D Eisenhower and Jawaharlal Nehru in Uttar Pradesh, 1959
INDIA AND THE US might be “natural allies” as Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared without so much as a by-your-leave to the Army chief, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, who had coined the phrase, but no Indian Prime Minister is completely at ease with an American president. Narendra Modi’s boasting of his intimacy with Barack Obama sounded distinctly dehati. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, by far the most Westernised of our leaders, naïvely thought of playing the sahib to impress Harry Truman on his first official visit to the US.
If that’s something we shouldn’t forget amidst the excitement of waiting for Donald Trump, neither should we forget that his is essentially a salesman’s trip to a country he has branded the “tariff king”. It’s so with any US president. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” as Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, famously said. Nehru found it revolting only because middle-class respectability confines trade to the tradesmen’s entrance. Britain’s Prince Harry doesn’t see anything untoward in setting a price on his royal status. In fact, taking a commoner’s money is doing him a favour. People grumbled that Harry’s great-aunt, the late Princess Margaret, found it demeaning to pay for her orders.
The profit motive drives the US. That’s why my own money was on Trump in 2016 even though Hillary Clinton’s was the more familiar and friendly face. Hillary had nothing to gain from India. She could afford to be objective. She could genuinely say and act “America First”. But Trump’s business interests connect him with India’s fortunes. The 45th US president understands those who are intoxicated by the prospect of joining the top one per cent who have cornered 73 per cent of India’s wealth. He sells them dreams. Trump Tower entices Mumbaikers with visions of ‘twin castles in [the] air.’ Another advertisement promises ‘a host of benefits, none more exclusive than having a private jet at their disposal.’
This deep commitment in India makes other presidents seem mere gadflies. Ronald Reagan confessed to snoring through New Delhi when his plane from Taipei to “London, England”—not one of your Johnny-come-lately American Londons—made a late-night refuelling halt there. Four days after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency declaration, Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan congratulated Gerald Ford on becoming president of the world’s largest democracy. “Nehru has sold us down the Hudson,” Truman grumbled, blaming him for the Korean defeat, while his Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote caustically that Nehru was so important that “if he did not exist—as Voltaire said of God—he would have to be invented.” Acheson was convinced that “if the world is round, the Indians must be standing on their heads.”
India reminded the much-maligned Richard Nixon of Dr Johnson’s comment about a dog walking on its hind legs. “It is not done well, but you are surprised that it is done at all.” Similarly, “Those who believe India is not governed well should remember how miraculous it is that it is governed at all.” He didn’t associate good governance with Mahatma Gandhi whose message of peace impressed him greatly. Nixon’s Quaker grandmother gave him a life of Gandhi when he was 17 and he read it over and over again. “I learned to know him through that book,” he said. But he had no time for Indira Gandhi who complained she “had excellent relations with everybody except Mr Nixon” who “had made up his mind beforehand”.
Jawaharlal Nehru naïvely thought of playing the sahib to impress Harry Truman. If that’s something we shouldn’t forget amidst the excitement of waiting for Donald Trump, neither should we forget that his is essentially a salesman’s trip to a country he has branded the ‘tariff king’
He certainly had. It wasn’t India he disliked but India’s leaders whom he met when he first came as Vice President in December 1953. Nehru was “the least friendly leader” on his 17-country tour. His accent grated on Nixon as much as his “personal thirst for influence, if not control, over South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa”. Nixon “would do anything for” Pakistanis because “they have less complexes than the Indians”. As for Indira Gandhi, she was “in every way … her father’s daughter”. She found him equally unappealing and after 20 minutes of desultory conversation asked his external affairs ministry escort in Hindi how much longer she would have to suffer the unwelcome guest.
That distaste resurfaced when he came as President at the height of a boiling Delhi summer. Indira Gandhi’s personal temperature must have matched the mercury as she received him at the airport with a far from cool, “You came at the wrong time of day and the wrong time of the year.” Undaunted, Nixon stopped the motorcade three times, jumped out of the car, pumped hands and gave away ballpoint pens inscribed with his and his wife Patricia’s names. Next morning’s Hindustan Times had a cartoon of a man explaining to his wife, “Everyone wanted to shake Nixon’s hand… I also tried but some other hand grabbed mine and pinched my ring!” That was also Lyndon Johnson’s style when he came as Vice President in 1961. Jumping out of his car at Jama Masjid he yelled, “Hi, folks! We want to help you.” He, too, was irked at not getting enough attention and got his own back when Indira Gandhi sought food aid.
History provides the context for politics. Had Cleopatra’s nose “been shorter, the face of the entire world would have been changed”, in Blaise Pascal’s immortal words. Indira Gandhi’s early encounters with Nixon and Johnson explain to some extent her later unpleasant experiences with them. Even the roaring success of the first American presidential visit—of Dwight Eisenhower on December 10th, 1959—could be traced to earlier factors. “During Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to the US in 1956, I had become so intrigued by the picture he painted of the region, its people and their aspirations that my desire to see that country for myself became the stronger,”
Eisenhower confessed. He told Lord Edwin Plowden, Britain’s atomic energy chief, that he had organised a three-week tour of Europe and the Middle East—possibly also Air Force One’s first official trip—“just to get to India”.
He thought Nehru’s protégé VK Krishna Menon “a menace and a boor”. Menon was regarded as acidly anti-American but the story goes that recovering from one of his frequent fainting fits at the UN, his first words were, “Where is the man from Associated Press?” Nehru found the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles a bore and a Cold War fanatic: Dulles said he had included Pakistan in the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation because it needed “some real fighting men” and the Gurkhas were the best. Told they were Indian, he retorted blithely, “Well, they may not be Pakistanis, but they’re Muslims.” Yet, Nehru and Eisenhower hit it off so well that when British intelligence reported that China would soon launch its final pacification campaign in Tibet, Eisenhower asked Nehru to give asylum to the Dalai Lama. Nehru in turn sought help from the author of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme to develop India’s nuclear capability. Nehru was deeply touched by Eisenhower’s concern in April 1958 when frustrated and despondent, he toyed with the idea of stepping down. Eisenhower hoped he would “not go too far away or for too long a time” because the world needed him.
Nehru and Eisenhower hit it off so well that when British intelligence reported that China would soon launch its final pacification campaign in Tibet, Eisenhower asked Nehru to give asylum to the Dalai Lama
WHERE DID IT BEGIN? The relationship took a significant turn on December 17th, 1956 when Eisenhower escorted Nehru to a major Civil War site where they spent nearly an hour and then to his farm in Gettysburg for the night. A thoughtful host, Eisenhower had carefully researched his guest’s food and drink preferences. “It turned out that the leader of the world’s largest Hindu country liked filet mignon and enjoyed an occasional Scotch as long as it was all in private. Nehru’s daughter, Indira, accompanied him to the farm and reportedly shared his food preferences.” They talked for 14 hours. Back in the White House, Eisenhower wrote down 14 pages of notes on the meeting.
“We had expected a great welcome for the President,” Nehru said about Eisenhower’s visit. “But even our anticipations were exceeded.” So dense were the crowds armed with mounds of roses, jasmine and marigold along the 24-km route that at one point Nehru got out of his blue Cadillac, clambered up a lamppost and laid about him with his swagger stick. Many dignitaries had to abandon their cars and walk. US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker left his diplomatic limousine and hitched a ride with an Indian woman journalist. ‘Delhi Too Likes Ike’ was a newspaper heading.
Jimmy Carter pored over the Bhagavad Gita to prepare for his arrival in New Delhi on New Year’s Day, 1978. At lunch the very next day, a servant had to eject a fly that tried to join the tête-à-tête between the President and his host, Morarji Desai. Photographs show the man lowering over them with his swatter threateningly raised. Perhaps there were two flies, for some reports say a bearer leant forward, picked up the offending insect between thumb and forefinger and carted it away. Desai’s graciousness averted another contretemps when a microphone carelessly left open recorded Carter saying a “cold and very blunt” letter would have to be written to the Prime Minister about the Tarapur heavy water controversy. Asked about it, Desai retorted that words “not intended to be heard were not heard”. Yet another storm rippled the teacup when Nani Palkhivala, the distinguished lawyer Desai had sent to the US as ambassador, was photographed helping Carter’s mother, Lillian, put on her shoe. Then aged 81, “Miss Lillian” as she was called, Georgia-style, had been a 60-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in India in the late-sixties, and represented her son at the 1977 funeral of Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
‘Clinton came. He saw. He concurred,’ bellowed the Sunday Times of India 22 years after Carter, and after Hillary Clinton had urged Richard Celeste, the newly appointed US Ambassador to India, “Promise me, Dick, that you will take him to India.” Having been herself, she regretted Bill could not travel the very next month. The visit almost didn’t take place. “So what’s happening about my trip?” Bill Clinton regularly asked. But though four members of his cabinet visited India in as many months in 1997, his was postponed several times, victim of America’s presidential campaign, India’s volatile politics, of US wrath over Pokhran-II and a stalemate in the 12 interminable rounds of talks between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State.
There was a minor hitch even on March 19th as Air Force One touched down at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport with five watchful satellites hovering above. Since the official visit would begin two days later, after the President’s quick trip to Bangladesh, this was a private arrival, and it had fallen to Ajit Kumar Panja, Minister of State for External Affairs, to do the honours. But the moment was snatched from him. As Panja waited on the tarmac clutching a bouquet of yellow rosebuds and violet wild flowers to welcome the most powerful man in the world, his boss, Jaswant Singh, strode forward and upstaged him.
Confusion of a different kind gripped Parliament’s Central Hall after Clinton addressed both Houses. The mad scramble by MPs to pump presidential flesh that left TV viewers around the world agape made a rugby scrum look sedate. Shyam Sinha, a Bihar legislator, vowed not to wash for three months the hand Clinton had shaken. At that moment of jumping on chairs, scrambling over each other and pushing and shoving, Indian parliamentarians would lustily have voted to sign all the hated anti-nuclear treaties. A minute later, they would as vehemently have denounced the foreign hand and all its works.
Wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt and casual slacks, Clinton linked hands with thirty women in their full-gathered red skirts and blouses, stamped and twirled, clapped and turned, in the folk dance called ghoomar
Tragedy struck as Clinton’s official visit started. Twenty-five Urdu-speaking men in Indian Army uniforms, armed with AK rifles and grenades, stormed the village of Chattisinghpora, 65 km south of Srinagar, where 250 Sikh families lived, and gunned down every single male aged between 16 and 60. Thirty-four were killed on the spot, one died in hospital of gunshot injuries and a woman collapsed and died on seeing the bleeding corpses. It was Kashmir’s worst-ever massacre, and the first time the small Sikh community had been attacked. At least two families lost all their menfolk.
The real highlight of Clinton’s visit lay beyond strategy, politics and economics in Nayla village nestling below a fort in the Rajasthan desert. Wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt and casual slacks, Clinton linked hands with 30 women in their full-gathered red skirts and blouses, stamped and twirled, clapped and turned, in the folk dance called ghoomar. “Shabash India!… Bravo India!” he cried. “Shabash Clinton!” they responded with gusto.
They told him of their trauma and triumph, of changing the face of the village. Batto Devi had been a widow for 17 years, fighting for equal pay for equal work after refusing to be palmed off on her dead husband’s younger brother. Shakuntala resisted attempts to force her into domestic drudgery when she was widowed at 22. Manju Joshi had found freedom running a cooperative dairy of which she made the President a member, inviting him to come along with his pail of milk. Rukmini Devi Sharma described fortnightly meetings where they discussed the need for electric pumps, schools, better drainage and loan facilities to make women self-reliant. When Munni Devi raised a fist to indicate that she had to fight her way into the panchayat, Clinton raised two clenched fists in salute. She tied a rakhi, a sister’s ceremonial bracelet for her brother, round his wrist, turning the ‘saare sansar ke maalik’, Lord of the Universe, as he was styled, into Bill Bhai, Brother Bill. Asked not to conceal their faces from “Kilintonji”, five women panchayat members boldly decided they would henceforth face the world unveiled. “You could be elected unopposed anywhere in the world,” Clinton gallantly assured them.
GEORGE W BUSH didn’t fare as well. Recalcitrant politicians wouldn’t let him address Parliament. Nervousness about the surrounding Muslim settlements ruled out a public address from the magnificent pink sandstone ramparts of the Red Fort. Bush was relegated to the massive but crumbling Purana Qila, Old Fort, where the Mughal emperor Humayun met his death on the steeply winding stairs. But no visit could be more significant. The agreement he signed and the arrangements he made in effect recognised India as a nuclear power.
The first coloured US President chalked up several more firsts. He was the only sitting president to visit India twice, in 2010 when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, and in 2015, when Narendra Modi received him. He was also the only US president to be chief guest at the Republic Day ceremonies, sitting bareheaded under the ceremonial marquee between President Pranab Mukherjee sporting a heavy fur hat and Narendra Modi flaunting an even more flamboyant multi-coloured turban than usual. It was the first time, too, that India and the US jointly and openly said Asia should not be dominated by one power, that being the purport of the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. The US Consulate in Mumbai apologised for asking invitees to Obama’s functions to submit personal details like income tax numbers after senior Maharashtra ministers and officials protested angrily. A ‘clerical error’ was blamed. Never before had New Delhi or Mumbai seen such intense security arrangements, and Mumbai’s police commissioner Sanjeev Dayal complained of the high-handedness of American officials accompanying Obama. Manmohan Singh and Modi both ignored protocol to receive Bush and Obama at the airport.
Mumbai’s police commissioner complained of the high-handedness of American officials accompanying Barack Obama. Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi both ignored protocol to receive him at the airport
First lady Michelle Obama had no official schedule of her own and no Indian first lady the second time to keep her company. But her wardrobe created a buzz from the moment she stepped off Air Force One in a knee-length floral dress by Bibhu Mohapatra, an Odisha-born New York-based designer, paired with a matching coat and black pumps. They called her the “dancing queen” in tribute to the grace and ease with which she swung to desi beats. For Shobhaa De, it was “a charm offensive”. When students in colourful saris with baskets on their heads celebrating Diwali pulled the first lady on stage and taught her how to twirl, the President, who was bobbing his head to the music and clapping his hands, commented: “Notice they didn’t ask me!” They soon did, and the room erupted in cheers as Obama boogied, towering over the youngsters. “It’s a love fest in India,” Quartz, the New York-headquartered business news brand of Atlantic Media, warbled.
It rained cats and dogs when Bush and Obama dropped in. Bush was burned in effigy in the southern city of Thiruvananthapuram because Keralites saw his pet cat’s name ‘India’ as a pointed insult. The cat had been named after the baseball player Rubén Sierra, who was nicknamed ‘El Indio’ during his time with the Texas Rangers when Bush owned the team, and his daughter Barbara changed ‘El Indio’ to ‘India’. Barack Obama also gave unwitting offence to Mumbai Muslims by bringing a US military sniffer dog named ‘Khan’.
The commercial motive was never absent. Eisenhower came to sell peace which Nehru was ready to buy but Field Marshal Mohamed Ayub Khan wasn’t, telling US Ambassador William Rountree that Pakistanis would accuse him of handing Kashmir to India on a silver platter if he signed a no-war treaty. Of the assortment of merchandise the younger Bush offered, Indians craved washing machines and pizzas but India—in the person of Manmohan Singh—sought only nuclear power. Uninspired by the Kennedy Camelot, Nehru stared at the ceiling and began tapping on the table after 10 minutes when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then a Massachusetts representative, called on him in his office in 1951. Later at lunch, he ignored the brothers, Jack and Bobby, speaking only to sister Pat. Kennedy got his own back when India annexed Goa. He gleefully told Ambassador BK Nehru that since India had at last done what it should have done much earlier instead of preaching morality to the world, “people are saying, the preacher has been caught coming out of the brothel. And they are clapping. And Mr Ambassador, I want to tell you, I am clapping too”.
The President probably didn’t live long enough to know that an admiring Lal Bahadur Shastri named his youngest grandson ‘Kennedy’. Touring India and Pakistan—where Ayub Khan gave her a magnificent stallion—in 1962, his wife rode elephants, taught people how to do the twist and hobnobbed with the Jaipur and Udaipur royals. Another royal, Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, was woken up just as he was falling asleep in London’s St James Court Hotel and told he had been appointed ambassador to Washington, whereupon he “made a conscious effort to be quiet—to read rather than speak, listen rather than talk, meditate rather than recite” to prepare for the job. It wasn’t easy, as he admitted. But “the Maharaja on Embassy Row”, as the Washington Post dubbed him, and his beautiful Maharani blended royal romance with scholarly mystique.
Style is a lost asset in diplomacy. But its concomitant of resonant rhetoric still rides high. “As the world’s largest and oldest democracies, we share certain basic beliefs, as in the rule of law and in the essential, inviolate and equal dignity of all human beings,” Inder Kumar Gujral told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. We can expect an abundance of such verbiage when the latest and far more robust incarnation of the saare sansar ke maalik comes to inspect his properties.