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Why Nixon detested Indira and other stories

By C Uday Bhaskar
April 06, 2010 15:50 IST
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C Uday Bhaskar reviews Nixon, Indira and India: Politics and beyond by Kalyani Shankar

In one of his many ambivalent and agitated moments, did former US President Richard Nixon refer to former Indian PM Indira Gandhi as a 'bitch'? And did his loyal aide, Henry Kissinger endorse the 'master' and add that the Indians are 'bastards' anyway?

The answer to these questions that have been alluded to in passing in the media over the years is a definitive yes -- and both the context and the detailed transcript of the private conversation between the two high-profile Americans is provided in Kalyani Shankar's valuable compilation of the de-classified US documents of that period. For the record, this conversation between Nixon and Kissinger took place on November 5, 1971 between 8.15 to 9 am.

The Nixon-Indira period in the bilateral relationship between the world's oldest and largest democracies was perhaps the most turbulent and eventful and tempered by the deep dislike that the US President had developed for his Indian interlocutor in the run-up to the birth of Bangladesh.

Divided into five useful introductory chapters that include the diplomatic confrontation between India and the US, the dramatic breakthrough in Sino-US ties heralded by the secret Kissinger visit, the birth of Bangladesh, the 1974 Pokhran nuclear explosion and finally the troubled triangular relationship between India, Pakistan and the US -- it is the detailed documentation that embellishes this volume.

The 320 plus pages of the official US documents reproduced in the book have been culled from the US National Archives and it is a tribute to the transparency that the US follows about its official documents that these papers have been brought into the public domain in the stipulated tine frame. While some sections have been blanked out -- with the word' sanitized' -- it is noteworthy that there has been no attempt at trying to delete or embroider derogatory words and turn of phrase that casts the US President and his top advisers in poor light.

And for the record, the word 'bastard' was not reserved for Indians alone in the Kissinger lexicon -- US Ambassador Keating receives the same affection. Warts and all -- the documents are rich in texture and offer multiple insights into a range of issues and the principal actors of that period -- albeit from a US perspective. The immediate response for an Indian analyst is to bemoan the inflexible policy of the powers that be in Delhi who are determined that similar documents and papers in the Indian archives never enter the public domain.

Shankar's long years as an astute journalist come to the fore and she reports that tumultuous period of the early 1970's that involved the US, China, India and Pakistan in a pithy manner and the effort is commendable. The more interesting insights as recorded by Kissinger and his aides are about then Chinese PM Chou en Lai and while he does not figure in the title of the book -- he is a major presence -- and clearly made a very strong impression on his American visitor.

Kissinger evidently was so moved by his principal Chinese interlocutor – the tireless Chou -- in one conversation (pg. 147) he says to his Chinese host: 'I have been especially moved by the idealism and spiritual qualities of yourself and your colleagues'. Did Kissinger always speak truth to power -- the elusive Holy Grail quality that advisers ought to imbued with -- or did he swing between being unctuous, self-deprecating, witty when warranted and shape the advice rendered to suit the preference of the presidential ear?

This book and the documents chosen offer variegated insights and will be of great interest and relevance to the serious student across a range of disciplines. Personally I found the various references to and about Chou and his own responses on different issues very instructive. Kissinger is an able chronicler and his notes are detailed and nuanced. The observations are insightful and in one section (pg. 153) his memo marked 'top secret/sensitive/exclusively eyes only' reads: 'Before lunch Chou made a one and a half hour presentation, as always without notes, responding to each of the seven points on my original agenda. This was an extremely tough presentation, though put forward without rhetorical flourish."

Further, in the same section he adds that Chou dwelt on: '…the contempt of the Indians, hatred for the Russians, and apprehension over the Japanese.'

It is the complex texture of the innumerable conversations about critical events that is fascinating. Chou may have exuded contempt for India and there are disparaging references to Nehru and Indira Gandhi but the Chinese collective was cautious about its actions and here the documents about the 1971 war for Bangladesh are instructive -- perhaps for the current period. One memo reveals that Nixon and Kissinger were trying to nudge Beijing to make a move on the Indian border (pg. 92) but the Chinese leadership was more reticent.

Nixon comes across as a very complex personality and his reaching out to China in 1972, for which he will be long remembered was actually outlined as far back as 1967 in an article he wrote in Foreign Affairs. The documents are indicative about how vital shifts in national policy are crafted and again -- as an Indian analyst -- one can only hope that the relevant papers in Delhi relating to the July 2005 India-US rapprochement over the nuclear nettle will see the light of day in a not too distant future.

There are many leads that merit much greater scrutiny and analysis but we must be grateful to Shankar for providing this preliminary template and poring over vast quantities of documents and then arranging them in this manner. But there are some quibbles. The author is too indulgent with Kissinger -- whom she had interviewed -- and his response is too tame and brief. The tenacious reporter was sorely required. And the publisher's choice of the tiniest font size for many of the documents is inexplicable. The book ought to have come with a caveat -- read with magnifying glass!

But despite these observations, this is a book that will be of great interest to practitioners and students of statecraft, diplomacy, strategy and more. The lesson for the Indian establishment is to open the archives to researchers and even if we opt for a 50 year rule -- maybe the 1962 war with China will be better understood. Otherwise the Chinese and US versions will become the only points of reference.

Nixon, Indira and India: Politics and beyond by Kalyani Shankar; Macmillan; 2010; pages 443; hardcover; Rs 445


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C Uday Bhaskar