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Nixon,Indira and India Kalyani Shankar Macmillan India Pages: 443 Rs 445

Written by K Natwar Singh | Published: February 13, 2010 1:16:59 am

When it came to India,the lamentable duo,US president Richard M. Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger,crafted so pugnacious a foreign policy that it can only be described as a phenomenon of extended malignance. This impression is strengthened by a reading of Kalyani Shankar’s well researched book. Nixon behaved as a petulant man during the crises in East Pakistan in the 1971 war. 

I was working in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat when Nixon paid a 24-hour visit to India in the scorching June of 1969. No crowds,no public enthusiasm. The contrast with president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1959 state visit (not 1956,as the author writes) was all too visible. A million people had turned up to greet Eisenhower at the Ramlila Grounds in Delhi. Jawaharlal Nehru said India had gifted a part of heart to the president. Mr. Nixon and Mrs. Gandhi met at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. As a middle-level official,I sat behind her taking notes.  

Shankar produces top-secret US documents relating to India and Pakistan that have been declassified. For this,she deserves our gratitude. Americans declassify documents after 25 years. We have a 30-year limit. It has never been followed. The result is that we have to learn from the Americans,the British and the Chinese,not only what they said or wrote but also what we said and wrote. This is an amazing situation. 

Shankar’s book includes large extracts from Nixon-Kissinger conversations on the events in East Pakistan/ Bangladesh in 1971. Some are verging on the obscene — calling Gandhi “a witch and a bitch”. I know of no other head of State resorting to such verbal outrage. Gandhi comes out a winner all the way. Her initial reaction was to act almost immediately after March 25,1971 when there was a military crackdown on civilians. This was a fleeting moment. Subsequently,she took time to work out India’s strategy. She got Europe and Britain on her side,along with the international media,exposing Pakistan’s “genocide” in East Pakistan. She did something more. She got liberal America to oppose Nixon. On August 9,she took America by surprise by signing the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty. The author also offers an illuminating account of the 1974 nuclear explosion. Here,too,the Americans were caught napping as in 1998. 

The Nixon team took a deliberately “tilting” decision to help Pakistan,ignoring the plight of people in East Pakistan. Gandhi had contempt for Nixon but she never resorted to objectionable language. In her vocabulary,improper words did not exist. 

Ambassador L.K. Jha,our man in Washington,comes out poorly. In one of his conversations with Kissinger on August 16,1971,he accuses Dinesh Singh,a former external affairs minister,of accepting bribe from the Russians (page 62). He also says T.N. Kaul and P.N. Haksar were “very much under Soviet influence.” In another paragraph,Jha tells Kissinger “that Haksar and Kaul were the real obstacles in India and that in the Foreign Office there were many pro-Soviet elements”. Here is an Indian ambassador running down his own colleagues. I can’t think of anything more despicable. 

Kalyani mentions Gandhi’s stay in New York in 1970,for the anniversary of the UN. She declined to attend Nixon’s dinner at the White House because the date did not suit her. Jha pleaded with her but failed to persuade her. He then requested her to send a letter to Nixon. “Natwar,give me a draft,” she told me. I produced one. She asked me to hand it over to Jha. The ambassador was downcast: “This is not a warm letter. Can’t you ask the PM to add a line or two indicating cordiality?” My response was,“Jha sahib,either this letter or no letter,you decide.” He delivered the epistle to the White House. 

Finally,two needles. Some pages,like 291-295,can’t be read without a magnifying glass. Secondly,there is too much on China. This spoils the symmetry of the book. But read Nixon,Indira and India. You will not regret it. 

The writer is a former foreign minister

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