By Raghav Bahl
Finally, after demurring twice, America trumped its ‘Harley Davidson phobia’—that economic storm in a teacup about high Indian tariffs on the import of a handful of iconic American bikes that so scared POTUS—to permit the Foreign/Defence Ministers/Secretaries of India/America to meet in New Delhi last week. Analysts celebrated the conclusion of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, a technology platform that will allow Indian and American weapons to ‘talk’ to each other in real time. ‘2+2’ hotlines will also be set up between the political leaders of the two countries.
But two festering sores were kept alive and malignant. America has yet to waive sanctions on India’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems; and Uncle Sam increased pressure to lower India’s oil imports from Iran to ‘zero’ by the ‘deadline’ of November 4, barely 60 days out. Both are impossible for India to concede. And given President Donald Trump’s mercurial and unpredictable decisions—who would have ever imagined a U.S. President rebuking NATO, Germany, and Canada, but cozying up to Russia—an accident with India cannot be ruled out.
Yes, by internalising those ‘2+2’, or Four, Lessons of History that are far more crucial than any diplomatic architecture.
History Lesson 1: America And India Are Foetal Siblings
In January 1962, President Kennedy wrote to Prime Minister Nehru expressing surprise and dismay at India’s forcible seizure of Goa from the Portuguese. But while condemning Nehru’s actions, the U.S. President openly sympathised with his ongoing struggles against colonialism.
‘Like many others, I grew up in a community where the people were barely a generation away from colonial rule,’ he wrote.
And I can claim the company of most historians in saying that the colonialism to which my immediate ancestors were subject was more sterile, oppressive, and even cruel than that of India. The legacy of Clive was on the whole more tolerable than that of Cromwell.
By comparing Oliver Cromwell and Robert Clive, however debatably, JFK underscored a fundamental point of connection between the two nations: both had emerged from the stifling womb of British rule.
No matter how much they might disagree, the U.S. and India would remain forever linked as siblings of the same colonial mother.
While the Americans had protested British rule by dumping tea into the sea, the Indians registered their disapproval by extracting salt from it. Time magazine named Gandhi 1930’s ‘Man of the Year’, praising his march ‘to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied a British tea tax.’ Gandhi himself noted the comparison. Having tea with the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, not long afterwards, he reached into a brown bag full of illegal salt and placed a pinch in his teacup—‘to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party,’ he told the Viceroy.
History Lesson 2: Knitting A Fractious Collection Of Independent States
If the independence movements of the U.S. and India bore a resemblance, so, too, did their early experiences in building a republic. Following Britain’s departure, each faced the same challenge: how to create a federal union out of a group of separate, sometimes disparate, states.
Owing to its sheer size, population, and diversity, India undoubtedly had the harder job; while America’s anti-federalists were ‘outmaneuvered, out-argued, and ultimately outvoted’ by the nationalists, as Joseph Ellis writes, India’s opposition, comprised predominantly of Muslims, was granted a separate state.
Indeed, like America 150 years before, India was blessed at birth with a set of wise and principled leaders who guided the country with foresight and courage. Gandhi can be viewed as a sort of nonviolent George Washington, the visionary ‘father of his country’ who cast off the British and worked unrelentingly to secure peace and harmony in his homeland. (It’s no coincidence that both are prominently featured on the currencies of their respective nations.) Likening India to a ‘younger United States’, particularly with regard to its defensive and insular foreign policy, American commentator Walter Lippmann wrote that it wasn’t ‘far-fetched’ to ‘think of Nehru as the Jefferson, of [Sardar] Patel as the Hamilton, and of [External Affairs Secretary General Girija Shankar] Bajpai as the John Quincy Adams of the young Indian republic.’
History Lesson ‘2+1’: An Umbilical Chord Between Two Constitutions
When India’s first constituent assembly convened on December 9, 1946 to begin hammering out its constitution, chairman Sachchidanand Sinha urged the 200-plus delegates in attendance to look first and foremost to the U.S. Constitution. Drafted in 1787 by what Thomas Jefferson, then stationed in Paris, described as ‘an assembly of demigods,’ Sinha called it ‘the soundest and most practical and workable republican constitution in existence.’ Noting that it had served as a model for the republics of France, Canada, Australia and South Africa, he continued, ‘I have no doubt that you will also, in the nature of things, pay in the course of your work greater attention to the provisions of the American constitution than to any other.’
It instituted universal suffrage for all men and women over twenty-one, established a secular state, guaranteed free speech, and banned the caste system, freeing 60 million untouchables. In a gesture way ahead of its time, it even called for ‘equal pay for equal work for both men and women.’
Indeed, the preamble to both documents starts with the same three stirring words: ‘We the people,’ a phrase that somehow confers equality, humility, and self-possession all at once.
Other echoes abound; India’s Fundamental Rights—which include the abolishment of untouchability—mirror America’s Bill of Rights: both guarantee freedom of speech (though India’s does not explicitly mention ‘the press’) and the right of citizens ‘peaceably to assemble’ (America’s) or ‘to assemble peaceably’ (India’s). The language of America’s fifth amendment, dictating due process before the law, can also be glimpsed in India’s Fundamental Rights: both prohibit citizens from being tried for the same crime twice, and both ensure that a suspected criminal cannot be ‘compelled’ to ‘be a witness against himself.’ Like America’s, India’s Constitution stipulates that the president appoint the justices to the federal Supreme Court. Even the minimum age requirements for president (thirty-five) and parliament (twenty-five) are the same as America’s.
History Lesson ‘2+2’: Never Repeat The Follies of Secretary Dulles And President Johnson
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (to President Eisenhower) was a staunch anti-Communist with such contempt for Indian neutrality that he once called it ‘immoral’. He was determined to stop Communism from marching westward, and he saw Pakistan as a key component of the ‘northern tier’ of that defence. During a trip to South Asia, Dulles gushed about the warm reception he encountered in Karachi—‘a genuine feeling of friendship’—compared to Nehru’s indifference. ‘Pakistan is one country that has moral courage to do its part resisting Communism,’ he cabled from Turkey.
This ‘indulge Pakistan’ stance continued well into the 21st century, until America discovered Pakistan’s perfidy in sheltering Osama bin Laden and conspiring with the 9/11 perpetrators.
The other historical sticking point between America and India was President Lyndon Johnson. When Delhi came asking Washington in 1965 to shore up its wheat aid programme, known as PL-480, President Johnson said no. In 1954, the year PL-480 began, India imported 1 million tons of grain; ten years later, imports had risen to 5.5 million tons, a jump only partly attributable to population growth. With India facing severe drought—grain production plummeted from 89 to 72 million tons that year—Johnson adopted a ‘short tether’ approach, approving shipments of two months’ and then one month’s worth of grain at a time, providing humanitarian aid but hoping to force the government to reform its moribund agricultural policy. The following year, with the drought persisting, Johnson went even further, implementing what came to be known as the ‘ship to mouth’ policy—essentially keeping the supply line so short there was no cushion against famine.
For many Indians, this was the final indignity that drove a permanent wedge between the US and India—one that still mars the relationship half a century later. Washington’s strict food aid policy may have been nothing more than a standard show of hard-nosed diplomacy, but under-confident India—accustomed to playing the victim—saw it as the ruthless politicking of a powerful bully.
If both foetal siblings, America and India, vow never to forget these ‘2+2’, or Four, Lessons of History, we shall become the defining strategic allies of the 21st century, give or take the accidents that a few ‘Trump-like Presidencies’ could cause!
Several of the passages, above, have been excerpted/edited from my book, SuperEconomies: America, India, China & The Future of the World (Penguin Allen Lane, 2015)