Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bharat yatras, Washington yarns

As the fifth US president to visit India, Bush has a lot of history to catch up on


Come to think of it, George W. Bush is only the fifth United States president to travel to India over 58 years since independence, which is all the more reason to look back at the kaleidoscopic pattern of the four previous presidential visits.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who arrived in December 1959 after stopping over in Pakistan, was the first US president to set foot in independent India. His four-day stay has also been the longest so far for an American head of state. The visit was a tremendous, indeed tumultuous, success. American journalists accompanying the president had been impressed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds welcoming him in Karachi, the then Pakistan capital. But New Delhi just ?stunned? them, as they put it. The ?sea of humanity? in Delhi?s streets was ?beyond belief?. Millions literally mobbed Ike. The presidential motorcade was immobilised for more than an hour at Connaught Place.

Private conversations between Jawaharlal Nehru and the visiting dignitary were no less warm than the public reception accorded to him wherever he went, from the Red Fort to the Taj Mahal, to the villages around Delhi. Despite the US military aid to Pakistan, the Nehru-Ike rapport was the outcome of Nehru?s 1956 visit to the US, especially their long talks at Eisenhower?s Gettysburg farm. Nehru was greatly impressed by Ike?s refusal to soften his opposition to the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of the Suez, even when his advisers warned him that his attitude would alienate the Jewish vote in his impending re-election.

For his part, Eisenhower told Lord Plowden, British atomic energy chief, that he had arranged a three-week trip to Europe and the Middle East ?just to get to India?. On the last evening of Ike?s stay in Delhi, Nehru and he dined alone. As he later recorded, Eisenhower was ?enthralled? by Nehru?s description of ?India, her history, her needs? and of his hopes for her. The memorable visit had made a positive impact on the Indo-US relationship but it couldn?t last long. In April 1960, the US decided to provide Pakistan with F-104 Starfighters and Sidewinder missiles. The rest is history.

For a whole decade thereafter, no US president even thought of visiting India until Richard Nixon landed in August 1969. India was then in the throes of the first Congress split, and the bitterly fought presidential election between V.V. Giri and Sanjeeva Reddy was on. Vice-president Hidyatullah received Nixon. The contrast between this visit and Ike?s sojourn could not have been greater. According to Dennis Kux, a former head of the India desk at the US State Department, and the author of Estranged Democracies, ?official meetings were low-key, almost perfunctory. Neither Mrs Gandhi nor Nixon displayed much warmth. The substantive discussion, mainly on Vietnam, lacked spark and animation.? Worse was to follow during Indira Gandhi?s visit to Washington at the height of the Bangladesh crisis and the notorious Nixon-Kissinger ?tilt?, but that is a separate story.

The third and, in many ways remarkable, US presidential visit, took place in exciting times as the year 1978 dawned. India was still celebrating the end of the Emergency and therefore was comfortable with the prime ministership of Morarji Desai, who the Americans thought was much friendlier to them than Indira Gandhi ever was or could be. Moreover, and more importantly, Desai and the new US president, Jimmy Carter, were men in the same mould ? so moral as to be moralistic. Indeed, Morarjibhai publicly declared that he shared the values expounded by Jimmy. Both had high hopes of each other, and tried hard to achieve them. Carter went so far as to dispense with the practice of coupling a presidential visit to India with a stop in Pakistan. Neither of the two presidential travellers before him, Eisenhower and Nixon, had done this, nor did Clinton follow his example. Bush, as we know, will be visiting Pakistan.

Unfortunately, however, things did not work out the way Desai and Carter had expected them to. And this happened in spite of the fact that Desai was willing to accommodate Carter?s obsessive focus on nuclear non-proliferation. The problem was the fuel for the Tarapur atomic power station. Under Carter?s non-proliferation evangelism America had gone back on its contractual commitments to supply enriched uranium for Tarapur. Desai found that unacceptable. Accident or bad luck made the disagreement explosive. An open microphone caught Carter telling his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, that his promise to release one shipment of fuel ?didn?t seem to make an impression on him (Desai)... When we get back, I think, we should write him another letter, just cold and very blunt.?

Desai made every effort to limit the damage done but to no avail. Remarks ?not intended to be heard?, he said, ?were not heard?. The country disregarded him. The majority felt that even India?s ?friends? in the US were double-faced.

So great was the heat over the nuclear issue that both then and later observers overlooked another factor that contributed to the dampening of the Carter visit and its aftermath. The do-gooder from Georgia was anxious to promote a multi-nation Eastern Waters Settlement in the Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin on the lines of the Indus Water Treaty. Morarjibhai did not even respond to his initiative.

About the visit of Bill Clinton, circa 2000, there is no need to say much. The gala event is so recent as to be relatively fresh in people?s minds. Blessed with charisma and a gift of the gab, Clinton ? whose principal policy aim for this part of the world, was to ?cap, reduce and eliminate? Indian nuclear capability ? captivated his hosts. There were no demonstrations against him. On the contrary, after his address to a joint session of two Houses, MPs ? cutting across party lines ? made a spectacle of themselves by falling over each other to shake hands with him.

Bush ? who is being accommodative towards this country over the nuclear issue and has made friendlier pronouncements on India than any other American president ? can only envy Bill. Paradoxically, Dubya is not liked by a fairly large section of Indians. Iraq has something to do with this. So have the threats to Iran. Much more damaging, however, have been TV images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

The writer is a well-known political commentator
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