US-India ties will remain clouded by Pakistan (IANS Book Review)

Book: ‘The South Asia Story’; Author: Harold A. Gould; Sage Publications, Price: Rs.295; Pages: 136

When the affable Chester Bowles was named ambassador to India in 1951, it was seen as the most significant step the US had taken to firm up ties between the world’s most powerful and largest democracies. The joy was short-lived. Neither Harry S. Truman, who was president (1945-53) when India became independent, nor the US Congress were enamoured of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism and non-alignment.

Partly due to prodding from the erstwhile British Raj and partly because of Cold War realities, the US began to woo Pakistan with generous supply of arms. This was based on the false assumption that the militarised grand strategy crafted for other parts of the world would work in South Asia too. ‘(This) doomed America’s South Asia policy to eventual failure,’ contends Harold A. Gould, a veteran American scholar who is a visiting professor in the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia.

The follies of Truman and his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61) form part of this well-informed study by Gould on the first 60 years of US relations with India and Pakistan. Six decades later, the US is paying a terrible price for propping up military regimes in Islamabad. The slim book covers 12 US presidents from World War II, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with George W. Bush. This period saw 15 Indian prime ministers.

John F. Kennedy was in power for too short a while (1961-63) to make a major impact on South Asia although the Sino-Indian war triggered a rapprochement in Indo-US ties. Once Lyndon B. Johnson took over after Kennedy was killed, Indo-US relations slowly went downhill, in part due to the new president’s naivete about international affairs.

Johnson had a personal rapport with Gen Ayub Khan. The Nixon administration (1969-74, when Bangladesh became independent) ‘marked the nadir of US-Indian relations’. Nixon displayed ‘irrational animosity towards India’.

Nixon’s macho secretary of state Henry Kissinger retained his post when Gerald Ford became president. Jimmy Carter may have finetuned the India policy but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed everything, bringing once again Pakistan to the forefront and transforming it, with a generous US arms supply, into a frontline state to restore democracy in Kabul!

Ronald Reagan enjoyed a warm chemistry with Rajiv Gandhi but US policy remained pro-Pakistan, thanks to the Afghan war. George H.W. Bush added fuel to fire by overlooking Islamabad’s nuclear proliferation – with disastrous consequences. By the time Bill Clinton took power in 1993 (for two terms), ‘India was becoming the world’s first concerted target of Islamic jihadism’.

George W. Bush may have been hugely unpopular but it was he who repaired India-US ties in a manner that no president had done before. Gould says the steps taken by Clinton and brought to fruition by Bush ‘put to rest the last vestiges of the Cold War in South Asia’. Not everyone will agree. As long as Washington relies on Islamabad to untangle itself from the Afghan war, US policy towards India will always be clouded by Pakistani shadow, with obvious aftereffects on relations between Washington and New Delhi.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])