Heads and tales

In a historic first, Barack Obama will be the chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations. Here is a look at the personal equations between Indian and American leaders over the decades.

Updated - November 13, 2021 10:49 am IST

Published - January 24, 2015 04:07 pm IST

A local vendor walking against the backdrop of India Gate, covered with the morning fog, as New Delhi is slowly marching towards winter on December 04, 2006.__Photo: Ramesh Sharma

A local vendor walking against the backdrop of India Gate, covered with the morning fog, as New Delhi is slowly marching towards winter on December 04, 2006.__Photo: Ramesh Sharma

According to an anecdote in Delhi circles, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama met on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit in Myanmar last November, there was time for some personal conversation. Obama said he felt sad that he had only two years left in office and so much left to do. When Modi asked him to elaborate, Obama recalled their conversation in Washington two months earlier when he had said, half-joking, that his daughters had complained that he had never taken them to see the Taj Mahal. That’s easy, replied Modi, asking if Obama would like to visit ‘during his tenure, or after he demitted office in 2016?’

While this may or may not be the reason President Obama is in India as the chief guest on Republic Day, it certainly points to the easy rapport the leaders of the two countries are believed to share. Many have remarked on the informal way Obama took Modi to the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington in his car a month before their meeting in Myanmar. The moment was important because it established what few thought would be possible: Modi and Obama had put the past firmly behind them, particularly memories of the U.S. visa ban of Modi post-2002.

It’s an ease that Obama — often criticised by the opposition in the U.S. for “not having any friends” — has built with not just Modi, but also his predecessor Dr. Manmohan Singh. Asked in an interview by journalist Fareed Zakaria in 2012 about his “aloof style” of diplomacy, Obama named Singh among the five world leaders he felt closest to. “I mean, I think that if you ask them, Angela Merkel, or Prime Minister Singh, or President Lee, or Prime Minister Erdoðan, or David Cameron would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the president. We believe what he says,” he added. Several PMO insiders recount how the two men often spoke over the telephone, and President Obama spoke to Singh regularly for advice on the economic troubles the U.S. went through post-2008.

In 2009, the personal angle to their friendship was also obvious when Singh and Gursharan Kaur were invited as the Obamas’ first State Guests. At the gala banquet in their honour, India was the theme; with green linen offset by purple floral arrangements, in honour of the Indian national bird, the peacock. But, amid the pomp and glitz of the Obama’s first State dinner, guests were shocked by the sparseness of the menu. In deference to his friend, the vegetarian Indian Prime Minister, the menu consisted mainly of red lentil soup and roast potato dumplings! On an earlier visit to the White House in 2008, after a banquet hosted by Laura and George W. Bush, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran remembers being held back by the American President, who told him, “This man is my friend; please take very good care of him.”

Such close relationships would never have been possible in earlier times. “From 1974 to 1998, when ties were more or less in cold storage, it would have been very difficult for an Indian Prime Minister to have overt personal warmth with an American president,” says Rudra Chaudhri, whose book, Forged in Crisis, chronicles the Indo-U.S. relationship since 1947. “If P.V. Narasimha Rao or I.K. Gujral had done it, there would have been a political backlash from left-leaning parties, and Nehru, Shastri and Indira wouldn’t have either, because of how it would look.”

The turning point in the relationship, most acknowledge, came after the Kargil war in 1998 when President Clinton intervened to make Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif withdraw his troops. “Until then, the U.S. faced a wall of mistrust in India,” says Frank Wisner, U.S. Ambassador to India from 1994 to 1997. “But after the Kargil war, when it became obvious that Bill Clinton had shown good faith and personally helped India end the war, it opened the way for relations.” In March 2000, Clinton visited India and, in September the same year, PM Vajpayee was given a warm welcome in Washington, where Clinton could be seen holding his arm to help him walk. At a banquet for 700 people including several business tycoons and stars, Vajpayee said he wished to thank two people for his visit, “Christopher Columbus, for discovering America, when he set out for India; and Bill Clinton for rediscovering India.” Despite hiccups in the bilateral relationship since then, it is clear that a personal rapport between leaders of both countries has kept Indo-U.S. relations on a steady path of growth over the past decade and a half.

It wasn’t so for the first few decades after India’s independence, however. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. felt snubbed by Prime Minister Nehru’s refusal to form an alliance. For his part, Pandit Nehru’s discomfort with hegemony of any kind after India’s colonial experience coloured his relationship with the U.S. leadership too. He famously enraged President Truman, for example, by criticising the U.S. settlement with Japan after World War II, refusing an invitation to a peace conference in San Francisco in September 1951 on the grounds that it “failed to meet the expectations of the Japanese people.”

Indignant at the accusation that the U.S. had been unfair to Japan, President Truman reportedly scribbled on the note, “Oh yeah? Who says so? Who won the war?” before drafting a less angry reply. President Truman’s hurt feelings were heightened, as he had only a week earlier lobbied with Congress for food aid to India. “Both Truman and Eisenhower had a hard time understanding Pandit Nehru,” says Rudra Chaudhuri, who recounts in his book how Eisenhower once said that “Indians are funny people, led by a personality (Nehru) of unusual contradictions.”

Nehru made up for the lack of personal warmth with correspondence, writing regularly to President Eisenhower, and sent more than a dozen letters to his successor President John F. Kennedy, but that didn’t change the narrative. Despite U.S. food and then military aid to India in the war with China — and even long chats with President Eisenhower who hosted Nehru at his own farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — India remained distrustful of the U.S., particularly its growing defence largesse to Pakistan.

The chemistry between a considerably older Nehru and the dapper young JFK lacked sizzle. In 1961, President Kennedy described a visit by Nehru and Indira Gandhi to the U.S. as “the worst head-of-State visit” while Jackie Kennedy called Mrs. Gandhi a “bitter prune” after an icy ladies lunch. Even what should have been a delightful visit to the newly-opened Disneyland on his birthday had an awkward moment. Nehru, heavily jet-lagged after the long flight, fell asleep on one of the rides. Mrs. Gandhi returned in 1966 to Washington as Prime Minister and hit it off with President Lyndon Johnson. Katherine Frank in Indira narrates an incident when Johnson asked how he should address her. Mrs. Gandhi replied, “My cabinet colleagues usually call me Sir”, drawing laughs from him. But the friendship was short-lived, as her next visit was just ahead of the Bangladesh war in 1971 and her acrimonious dealings with President Richard Nixon were famously called the “dialogue of the deaf.”

In his book 1971 , Srinath Raghavan recounts how both meetings — once when Nixon came to India in 1969 and Mrs. Gandhi’s trip to Washington — were cold, compounded by the U.S.’s continued preference for Pakistan. The Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who played a lead role in the relationship, said India and the U.S. “had achieved a state of exasperatedly strained cordiality, like a couple that can neither separate nor get along.” The White House tapes, declassified in 2005, revealed the derogatory and sexist language used by President Nixon about Mrs. Gandhi when he realised India was going to war with Pakistan. This was possibly the lowest point of relations between an Indian and an American head of state. The relationship was slightly better when she went to Washington in 1982, and her son Rajiv Gandhi visited Washington in 1985 and 1987, while Morarji Desai and Jimmy Carter exchanged visits in 1978 but to little account.

In the post cold-war era, Narasimha Rao began the process of thawing relations with the U.S., but only steered the course away from the old narrative, and didn’t forge lasting personal bonds with his American counterparts. The fact that Obama is in India as the first American President to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade is as much a testament to the confidence he and Modi have in the Indo-U.S. relationship and each other, as a stark reminder of the many decades it took for both countries and their leaders to get here.

Other important leaders at R-Day

1950

President Sukarno (Indonesia)

1955

Malik Ghulam Muhammad (Pakistan)

1958

Marshall Ye Jianying (People's Republic of China)

1961

Queen Elizabeth II (UK)

1971

President Julius Nyerere (Tanzania)

1982

King Juan Carlos I (Spain)

1995

President Nelson Mandela (South Africa)

2003

President Mohammed Khatami (Iran)

2007

President Vladimir Putin (Russia)

2008

President Nicolas Sarkozy (France)

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