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India US Presidential Visits: From J-Bombs To N-Bombs


Apr 3, 2005


Richard Nixon

For a measure of how the relationship between India and the United States, and indeed the nature of Presidential visits has changed, you only need to look at the front page of the New York Times on the eve of President Richard Nixon's 22-hour New Delhi stopover in 1969. The biggest concerns, it would appear, weren't the South Asian arms race or even the brewing crisis in East Pakistan.

Dwight D Eisenhower

But if the first-ever visit of a US President to India, that of Dwight D Eisenhower in 1959, was any indication, it was a start as good as any. Eisenhower spent almost a week in India, and from all accounts, his popularity was immense. "The visit was a huge success," recalls K Natwar Singh, the former external affairs minister who has also been a high-ranking diplomat. "Unlike these days, there was no security. He travelled in an open car in Delhi, and there seemed to be a million people wherever he went. Most importantly, Nehru and Eisenhower got on very well."

Eisenhower, a war hero, was hailed in India as the 'Prince of Peace'. Wherever he went, Eisenhower was genuinely effusive in his praise and admiration for India. Despite India being the lead goose in the flight formation of non-alignment, he stressed not once but on every occasion he rose to speak in India, including at a joint parliamentary address, about the readiness of the US to guard India against any form of aggression.

"In fulfilling a desire of many years, I pay in person America's tribute to Indian people, to their culture, to their progress and to their strength among independent nations," he said on arrival, adding that his visit was a sort of personal pilgrimage. The two heads of state got on so well that Nehru accompanied the Eisenhowers to the Taj Mahal, and gave them a 40-minute guided tour of the place.

Although Nehru and Eisenhower had known each other, the instant rapport between the two did surprise many. In 1949, when Nehru was conferred an honorary doctorate by Columbia University, Eisenhower was the president of the ivy-league university then. "The chemistry was surprising in many ways because Eisenhower was a soldier, whereas Nehru was a philosopher-statesman," says Natwar Singh. While his daughter-in-law was soaking in Indian exotica by riding atop Hirakgaj, a tusker from the Delhi zoo, Eisenhower inaugurated the world agriculture fair in the city and reiterated that anything that strengthened India also strengthened the US.

But the positives from the visit dissipated quickly. Nehru's reciprocal visit in 1961, when John F Kennedy had taken over as the President, wasn't a roaring success. Clearly, Nehru's age was getting the better of him. Both sides came away less than impressed. The cold war antipathy, and India's perceived tilt towards the Soviet Union, accelerated the trust deficit.

By the time Richard Nixon came calling in 1969, the relationship had deteriorated further. Nixon's boorish personality didn't help. His visit was so short that, in accordance with protocol, it could not be even classified as a state visit.

A year later, when Indira Gandhi was attending the 25th anniversary celebrations of the UN's formation in New York, she snubbed Nixon by leaving for India on the day he hosted a banquet for visiting heads of state. She left LK Jha, the Indian ambassador to the US, to attend the party, and only grudgingly agreed to hand him a cut-and-dry letter, explaining her absence to Nixon. "It was clear that Nixon was a small man, even a poor human being. He thought India was a thorn in America's flesh. The recently declassified US documents show the contempt he had for India and Indira Gandhi," Natwar Singh recalls. "Mrs Gandhi more than returned the compliment. Much to his chagrin, Nixon found himself outmanoeuvred by Mrs Gandhi on the issue of Bangladesh. She had Europe, liberal America, and most of the international press on her side."

India's nuclear tests in 1974 only made matters worse. "While Nixon was vitriolic in his hatred, the Carter presidency and the first six years of the Clinton administration were the worst phases in the Indo-US relationship," says G Parthasarathy, a veteran diplomat. "The economic sanctions were the toughest during Carter's time. The fuel supply restrictions he placed shut down the Tarapore nuclear reactor."


Jimmy Carter

Not surprisingly, Carter's new year visit in 1978 was disastrous. In fact, Carter's nine-day, seven-country tour was calamitous in general. Just before arriving in India, Carter had celebrated new year's eve in Tehran with the Shah of Iran, clinking ceremonial glasses of champagne at a public function. For the Islamic revolutionaries, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, it became the public symbol of everything that was wrong with the reign of the pro-Western, un-islamic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

At home, Prime Minister Morarji Desai's weak government didn't help matters either. Carter did all the usual things. He addressed a public meeting at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, predictably invoked the shared values of freedom and democracy the two countries shared, and visited a village in Haryana that was christened Carterpuri.

But it was perhaps for the first time during a presidential visit that economic matters figured in the joint statement. The two countries resolved to remove problems in bilateral trade and in supporting commercial cooperation between Indian and US companies in other countries. There was a proposal to form a working group to undertake joint discussions and research in industry, including in small-scale industry.

But that's not the enduring memory of the Carter visit. "It seemed Carter and Desai spent more time making small talk rather than real issues," says a retired Indian diplomat. "Desai gave him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, while Carter presented him a two-volume Journal of Henry Thoreau. Carter mentioned how much he loved reading the Gita for a couple of hours that morning and commented something about the unimportance of physical life. Carter mentioned something about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which Desai largely ignored."

And as if to exemplify the mutual distrust and derision, Carter's less than flattering comments to one of his aides was caught on tape at the airport when he was about to leave. "I told him [Desai] I would authorise transfer of [nuclear] fuel now. It didn't seem to make an impact. When we get back, we must write the Indians a cold and blunt letter," he apparently said.


Bill Clinton

While most Indians warmed up to the charismatic Bill Clinton instantaneously, those in the diplomatic community say relations between the two countries had become fairly warm during the Rajiv Gandhi days. The Ronald Reagan administration during Rajiv Gandhi's time was more than supportive of India.

Although Reagan didn't visit India (George Bush senior, the then vice-president did), there were indications that the bitterness of the Carter era was a thing of the past. "When the Lanka peace accord was signed in Colombo in 1987, there was a congratulatory message from the US embassy in Sri Lanka within half-an-hour, even before the ink had dried," says Parthasarathy. "That was an indication of how closely the Americans were working with us on several key foreign policy issues."

Parthasarathy says Reagan had a great personal equation with both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. "When both USSR and France were willing to supply fuel for the nuclear plants cut off by the US, she chose France ahead of USSR so that it didn't embarrass Reagan," he says.

In the late-1990s and early-2000s, the diplomatic and strategic community was quite sceptical about Clinton's approach to India - he held a tough stance on sanctions and repeatedly tried to raise the Kashmir issue. But the business community was highly impressed and optimistic.

For the first time, a visiting US President was accompanied by a large business delegation. Clinton even addressed two different gatherings of businessmen during his visit. "That simply couldn't have been possible during Nehru's time," says Natwar Singh. "He had a disdain for American wealth and wouldn't have tolerated a business delegation accompanying the President. He had no time for them."

By the time Clinton came to India, it was evident the sanctions imposed on India in the aftermath of the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests weren't working. The Europeans were keen to do business with a fast-growing economy. And the sanctions were hurting Pakistan more - something that was seen to be aiding Indian interests. "But Clinton, a non-proliferation hardliner himself, had even tried to arm-twist a weak Boris Yeltsin [the then Russian President] to stop the supply of cryogenic engines to India. But the idea of isolating India had run out of steam. Also it was then that the prowess of the Indian IT industry and the creativity of Indians in the US had woken up the American administration. "Matters of economy worked themselves into bilateral negotiations rather than any concerted effort from either side," explains Parthasarathy.


George Bush

Another decisive factor in the strategic reorientation of the relationship was the large and influential Indian-American community. "Indian-Americans are highly creative, patriotic and passionate about their roots, resourceful and incredibly wealthy," says a former diplomat involved in the negotiations then. "Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the US at the time, harnessed that during the nuclear-deal negotiations in 2005-06 and swayed the opinion of policymakers and the big media quite skilfully."

That, coupled with President Bush's personal commitment to the deal, proved to be the clincher. "Bush really felt for India," says the diplomat. "While Obama seems to be a non-proliferationwallah who moved some killer amendments on the nuclear deal which were thankfully rejected. He seriously considered making Clinton a special envoy for Kashmir. Indian-Americans, by and large, cast their lot with Hillary Clinton, while Obama's best sub-continental friends from his Harvard Law School days were mostly Pakistanis, and he has his own prejudices about outsourcing," he adds indicating the bumpy road that might lie ahead in India's dealings with the US.

That also shows why despite his falling popularity in the US in mid-2000, Bush was well loved in faraway India. What he said at his Purana Qila address in 2006 was music to Indian industry's ears - a chime it's longing to hear again. "In my country, some focus only on one aspect of our trade relationship with India: outsourcing. It's true that some Americans have lost jobs when their companies moved operations overseas...Some people believe the answer to this problem is to wall off our economy from the world through protectionist policies. I strongly disagree...We're helping to create millions of new jobs in both our countries by embracing the opportunities of a global economy. The US will not give into the protectionists and lose these opportunities. For the sake of workers in both our countries, America will trade with confidence."

Strategic observers in India fear what they term as Obama's obsession to cut a deal with China, ignoring the concomitant impact in the Asian region. "China's importance cannot be overstated," says a former Indian ambassador to the US. "Obama believes he can fix Iran and North Korea more effectively with China on its side. It is obviously the most important economic player in the post-financial crisis world. But he's probably only realising now that China's ambitions don't necessarily match with that of the US."

But then again, personal equations could determine the success of the sixth Presidential visit to India. It will help that Manmohan Singh unequivocally supported Obama's trillion-dollar stimulus plans. This prompted Obama to dub the Indian PM a global guru at a time when the domestic detractors of the American president were pillorying his economics. "Obama is an outstanding speaker and is blessed with a sharp perceptive mind. I have no doubt he'll hit it off well with Manmohan Singh," says Natwar Singh. "He wouldn't want to be seen as the man who derailed the friendship between the two largest democracies in the world."


It was the weather and the fickleness of the capital's flora. "If Mr Nixon rides under clear skies with the top of his bubblecar down, he will have to beware the fallout from Delhi's ubiquitous Jamun trees. Their purplish bounty, a semi-sour cherry like fruit with a big, hard pit, splatters indiscriminately on heads of passersby these days," the paper recorded prominently. Nixon's pit stop of a visit was partly a reflection of the frigidity between him and Indira Gandhi, and India's relative dispensability in the US' scheme of things.

Some 40 years later, when Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, comes visiting in the first week of November, things are slightly different. Jamun trees are no longer ubiquitous in Delhi; Obama will not drive around in a bubbletop, let alone one with an open roof; his itinerary is longer; Obama and "guru" Manmohan Singh get along fairly well; and most importantly, India's economic heft means it's a key stakeholder in the emerging world order.

State visits by premiers are a reasonable barometer to gauge the goodwill and intensity of engagement between nations. Plotted on a graph, the Indo-US relationship, with the six presidential visits (including Obama's next month), would look a bit like the run-rate 'worm' chart of a side batting in a one-day cricket match. A sedate yet solid start, followed by long periods of painfully slow scoring during the cold war, and some power-hitting in the slog overs.

In the five decades since independence, up until 2000, US presidents came to India only thrice. In just one decade since, there have been as many, signifying the growing strategic importance of the relationship.

No matter how good the backroom diplomacy is, it's the chemistry between the two chief executives at the summit that makes or breaks deals. This was evident in the manner in which George Bush and Manmohan Singh inked the landmark civilian nuclear deal in 2006. While Bush was the first US President who well and truly de-hyphenated the country's relationship with India and Pakistan, and is credited with changing the dynamics of Indo-US engagement, the expectations from Obama's visit are coated with cautious optimism.

More than a year into office, Obama has sent mixed signals to India. His statements against outsourcing to destinations like India have unnerved the industry and his perceived kid-glove handling of Pakistan grates the strategic and diplomatic community.