By Arnold Zeitlin 23 August 2022
Journalist Meenakshi Ahamed briskly takes her readers through the ups and downs of U.S.-India relations, as her sub-title indicates from the U.S. presidents with surnames conveniently starting with T. However, she actually starts her narrative from U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying unsuccessfully in 1942 to persuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to grant colonial India dominion status similar to that enjoyed by the white man-ruled Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
She could have gone as far back as 1776 when Tipu Sultan, the son of the ruler of Mysore state in India, sent a letter to the signers of the American declaration of independence supporting their independence. Appreciative Americans later named a warship after Tipu’s father. The ship, the Hyder Ally, was known to have fought against the British in a 1782 battle in the Delaware Bay.
While she writes of U.S. interest in a relationship with India waxing and waning depending on developments in South Asia or elsewhere in Asia, she fails, as do most writers who deal with this subject, to provide a fuller context for India’s foreign relationships elsewhere. The blips in the U.S.-India relationship are not unusual considering India’s relations with other countries.
India seems to have difficulties with all its neighbors, for example, not only the widely-known Pakistan and China issues but matters with Napal and Bhutan as well as its Tamil-sensitive issue with Sri Lanka. While the United States races around the world trying to establish alliances with 80 or more countries, India seems to have encouraged no long-standing relationships with any country. There are today Indians who have never gotten over the “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” days of India’s relationship with China. Ms Ahamed gets briefly to India’s participation in the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, with the U.S., Australia and Japan, India’s presence is edgy, particularly because of its reluctance to condemn the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
Otherwise, Ms. Ahamed gives her readers a lively, substantive account of a relationship that should have been solid but was not between two large states that speak somewhat the same language and have liberal, popularly-elected governments supportive of human rights. She provides brief but comprehensive background on each changing American and Indian administration with quick bios of the major players, often with one-line zingers. For example, using a line borrowed from a secretary to Pandit Nehru describing Sardar Saran Singh, a foreign minister, as having the ability to “go on talking forever without saying anything.” T.N.Kaul, then the Indian ambassador to the United Nations and later foreign secretary, is described as “never one to let a good deed go unpunished.” Sanjay Gandhi, son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with a “sense of entitlement, coupled with his arrogance”, inserts “himself into his mother’s political decisions as if it were his birthright.”
Nehru, India’s long-serving first prime minister, doesn’t come of well in this account, despite his saintly reputation in India. He is often shown as uncertain about decisions or making policy. In his later years, aging and sickened, he is a sad figure, surrounded by often well-meaning staff unwilling to challenge him. His apathetic manner disappoints President John F. Kennedy, who is unusually eager to assist India, although Nehru famously gets on cozily with JFK’s glamorous wife.
In regard to illness, Ms Ahmed scatters through her narrative area references to “intestinal infection” that assails numerous American ambassadors as well as President Lyndon Johnson. A warm rapport between Nehru and Louis Johnson, FDR’s personal envoy to pre-independence India, she writes, “was aborted” when Johnson came down with “severe intestinal infection” forcing him to leave the country to the relief of the British, who did not wish to see a warm U.S.-India relationship. She misses an opportunity to speculate about the impact of “Delhi belly” on U.S. policy toward India, a subject that may well be taken up some day by a doctoral candidate.
In an otherwise lively, informative account, there are signs of haste or plain sloppiness in editing and researching. Nehru is at one point described as India’s head of state, a role fulfilled by the country’s president. Also identified as head of state is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh. She has Jackie Kennedy giving an interview to a Schlesinger, without further identification, althouth Ms Ahamed probably means historian Arthur Schlesinger. She introduces a Moynihan on page 25 but doesn’t give him full identification as Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan until page 223. She devotes a page to a Mr. Clark, identified as the head of Ronald Reagan’s national security council but never gives him the honor of a full name. She is probably referring to Richard A. Clarke, who worked for Reagan’s State Department but was appointed to the security council by President George H.W. Bush. He is now out of government as board chairman of the Middle East Institute. Secretary of State Willim P. Rogers is referred to dubiously as Will Rogers. The author generously credits President Bill Clinton with the political slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” a chant devised by Democratic Party operative James Carville for Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
She is often at her best dealing with personalities. She notes that Mrs. Gandhi and President Nixon detested one another but goes on to write:
“The two leaders had more similarities than they would have liked to admit. They both had dominating fathers and ‘saintly’ mothers whom they adored and had lost family members to TB. By all accounts, both had difficult childhoods, albeit for very different reasons. They both were loners and found it difficult to open up to people. They were both aloof, thin-skinned and shared the handicap of never forgetting a slight. In Nixon’s case, he brought it forward into his presidency, and in Mrs. Gandhi’s case, it lasted through her time in government. One can only wonder if relations could have been more neutral if a resourceful staffer had pointed out commonalities they could have connected with on a personal level.”
Ms Ahamed races through the Narendra Modi era with Barack Obama and Donald Trump, briefly looking at Joe Biden and forecasting that his administration will focus more on China than India, which is probably true. Reflecting India’s hesitation to fully embrace the United States, and vice versa, she suggests a closer U.S. alliance needs to be “carefully calibrated” and adds that India needs friends like Russia to balance China, a wish that fades under the glare of a new China-Russia “no-limits” strategic partnership.
Ms Ahamed has produced a lengthy, lively, anecdotal version of a contentious relationship written in a manner that would hold the attention even of those readers who at best have a casual interest in the issue.