NIXON, INDIRA AND INDIA: POLITICS & BEYOND
At a time when India is seen, rightly or wrongly, as intensely engaged in an effort to get closer and closer to United States, it is useful read this book by the well- known journalist and author Kalyani Shankar. The principal theme is how Indira Gandhi was crafty enough to outwit Richard Nixon ,himself a superb practitioner of the wicked art of real politik, in the context of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan bringing into being Bangladesh. Those of us who are old enough do have an idea of how Indira Gandhi did it. But Shankar by accessing the declassified US material and using her contacts with some of the major actors, including Henry Kissinger, has given us a reasonably comprehensive account of what happened and why it happened the way it happened.
Of course, in a more rational world, Shankar would have had access to declassified material in electronic form from Pakistan, China, Soviet Union, and others, not to mention India, and her account would have been even more comprehensive. She did get some access to Ministry of External Affairs archives in India, but India has yet to formulate a policy on giving such access and publishing declassified material in an electronic form available to all.
Nixon was a keen traveler. He visited India as a private citizen in 1964 and 1967. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi agreed to meet him during the second visit. She could scarcely conceal her boredom and after twenty minutes she asked, in Hindi, the Ministry of External Affairs official who accompanied Nixon how much longer the session was going to last. On the other hand, in Pakistan Nixon even as private citizen got the red carpet welcome. As Kissinger put it, “And these blunt military chiefs of Pakistan were more congenial to him than the complex and apparently haughty Brahmin leaders of India.” Nixon wrote to Heads of State on January 10, 1969, ten days before his inaugural. To Ayub Khan he scribbled a few extra lines saying “I shall always be grateful for the courtesies extended to me on my visit to Pakistan.”
In August 1969 Nixon came to Delhi. Though he was not fully expecting a crowd as large as the one that greeted Eisenhower, the first US president to visit India, Nixon was disappointed that it was just adequate. Neither Nixon nor Gandhi ‘displayed much warmth.’ Essentially, Nixon was in India on his way to Pakistan where he asked Yahya to contact China and convey his intention to alter the traditional US policy towards China. Yahya was to say that Nixon believed that Asia could not move without China and that he would not be party to any Soviet efforts to isolate China. After about two months of his meeting with Yahya, Nixon rewarded him by announcing ‘a one time exception’ permitting Pakistan to buy military equipment worth $ 500 million. Roughly around that time India was made to reconsider a decision to set up an embassy in Hanoi under threat of cut off of US aid. In October 1970 Yahya attended a dinner at the White House along with other leaders who had come to attend the United Nations General Assembly. He thanked Nixon profusely. Nixon requested Yahya to convey to the Chinese that the US regarded ‘ rapprochement with China as essential and that he was prepared to send an envoy to Peking for secret discussions.’ Indira Gandhi too was invited to the dinner, but she had declined.
On July 8, 1971, when Kissinger met Indira Gandhi in Delhi the major topic was the crisis in East Pakistan. Delhi was just a stop over on Kissinger’s secret trip to China via Pakistan. He tried to fool his interlocutor by saying that his country would take a ‘grave view of an unprovoked Chinese attack on India.’ One month later (August 9) India signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, an obvious insurance against military involvement in favor of Pakistan by China or US in case of an Indo-Pakistan war.�
On August 30,1971 Ambassador L K Jha called on Kissinger who expressed his unhappiness over India’s attitude towards US. Keeping in mind the Indo-Soviet Treaty Kissinger said, ‘If India wanted to become an extension of Soviet foreign policy, then inevitably the American interest in India was bound to decline and India would have to look to the Soviet Union for its economic and other assistance.’ In reply Jha said that the Prime Minister had resisted signing the treaty for a long time. It was Dinesh Singh who pushed for it. Jha hinted that Dinesh Singh might have taken money from the Soviets. Kaul and Haksar were very much under Soviet influence. Mrs Gandhi did not have her heart in it. The reader might wonder: What was Jha’s own account of this conversation to his government?
Mrs.Gandhi met Nixon in Washington on November 4th and 5th 1971. Nixon in his opening remarks offered sympathy for the flood victims of Bihar and his interlocutor pointed out that he had missed mentioning the man-made tragedy of the millions of East Bengal refugees. An offended Nixon made the Indian Prime Minister wait for 20 minutes for the next meeting . Before that meeting in a discussion with his aides Nixon used much foul language against Mrs.Gandhi. She was a ‘ bitch and witch’ and he would make the meeting ‘brief and cool’.
It is worthwhile to compare Mrs.Gandhi’s defence of the Indo-Soviet treaty, as recorded by the US side, with that of her ambassador referred to earlier: The Prime Minister stated that President Yahya continued to speak of a Holy War. It may well be that the presence of Indian forces along Pakistan’s border had deterred the initiation of military action by Pakistan thus far. This tense situation had influenced India towards making its treaty with the Soviet Union as a means of creating additional deterrent. Stability of India was an important objective to the Soviet Union, and therefore, the Soviet Union had been pressing for a political solution. Many in India have been opposed to the Soviet treaty and the majority of the Parliament was concerned about this.
The White House recorder concludes: As the meeting concluded ,President Nixon expressed the U.S. Government’s continuing sympathy and support for the Government of India at this most difficult and trying time. An attentive reader might wonder: How unrevealing and misleading the official recorder can be!
The impact of the Indo-Soviet treaty on China comes out with stunning clarity in Kissinger’s exchanges with Chou before and after the treaty. July 11, 1971, Chou told Kissinger, “Please tell President Yahya Khan that if India commits aggression, we will support Pakistan. You are also against it.” In October 1971., Kissinger found his Chinese interlocutors’ having adopted a ‘low risk policy’, but not willing to convey that to him in so many words. Kissinger’s assessment is that it is the treaty with the Soviet Union that compelled the Chinese to be cautious. Incidentally, a CIA report dated December 7, 1971 concluded that the Chinese were in no position to repeat 1962. A supplement to the report pointed out that ‘China does retain the option of a smaller scale effort, ranging from overt troop movements and publicized preparations to aggressive patrolling and harassment of Indian border outposts for a limited diversionary attack. At present, however, Peking appears to be keeping its head down. But, the CIA assessment did not prevent Kissinger from urging China to make military moves to discomfort India when the war was on. The Chinese did not oblige.
The Soviet Union extended solid support to India. Nixon wrote to Kosygin on November 25,1971 urging him to put pressure on India to agree to a mutual pull back of the forces from the border. Kosygin took more than six days to reply and made it clear that the proposal for a pull back was “scarcely feasible.” On December 12, 1971 Nixon used his hot line to Moscow for the first time. It was an ultimatum. Unless the Soviet responded in 72 hours he (Nixon ) would ‘set in train certain moves in the Security Council that could not be reversed.’ The intention was to get India declared as aggressor. Nixon knew that East Pakistan was gone, but he was worried about the West. The Soviets adroitly replied on the 14th by a note that said that there was ‘considerable rapprochement of our positions.’ It also conveyed firm assurance from India that ‘it had no plans to seize the territory of West Pakistan.’
The impact of economic weakness on foreign policy is painfully illustrated by External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh’s request to Secretary of State Kissinger for credit as India found it difficult to pay the mounting oil bill. India also asked Kissinger to put in a word to Saudi Arabia. This was in April 1974.
In her concluding chapter, the author opines that for Nixon both India and Pakistan came in the periphery of the US-Soviet-China triangle. What mattered to Nixon was that his plans for China and the Soviet Union should not be spoilt by anything happening in the sub-continent.
Shankar narrates exceedingly well a complex story. If she had access to other archives she could have done some cross checking. For example, Shankar has quoted (page 11) without comment, and with apparent approval, Kissinger’s claim that when he stopped over in Delhi in July 1971 before embarking on his secret visit to Beijing via Pakistan he had given some hints to the Indian Prime Minister about US plans to improve relations with China. Shankar is quoting from The White House Years published in 1979. The reader might doubt whether Kissinger’s recollection was accurate. Would he have risked his super secret mission that was kept secret even from Secretary of State Rogers?
Shankar’s book will be of interest not only to scholars but also to the general public, especially the young people.
NOVEMBER 10, 2010