IN MY MIND, as, I suspect, in the minds of numerous other foreigners, the city of New York epitomizes the United States of America. Before arriving there on 25 th August 1989 to take up my assignment as Consul General of India, for me the images of New York City, more than any other, were the images of the United States. More than any other it was also a world city, not because of the United Nations, which impinged on city life but marginally, but because there was hardly any ethnic or linguistic group in the world whose specimens could not be found there. Then there were for me two respects in which New York was the centre of the English-speaking world. No major theatrical production in English was thought a success unless it had been staged there just as writers in English aspired to have their books published in America, which for a large part meant being published in New York City.
Someone from Boston I got to know half way through our stay in the city, not a Boston Brahmin but quite close to it, an American of a high enough caste to have married a Nehru descendant, asked me how I liked living in the only Third World city of America. Someone else, a Columbia University Professor, who knew India well, was fond of calling New York Calcutta on the Hudson. He meant to refer to the intellectual life of the city. Even after staying there for three years and travelling beyond New York and even after hearing from so many American acquaintances and friends that there was New York City and there was America, a bit like the French whom I had known earlier, who used to say that there was Paris and there was France, for me so much that happened in New York affected the rest of America that the two were inseparable then and remain so now.
New York justly boasted of the largest diplomatic and consular population of all the cities of the world. The City Government had a Commissioner for the Diplomatic and Consular Corps. It promoted contacts between different citizens’ groups and the members of these bodies. A Society of Foreign Consuls—of the Executive Committee of which I was a member without understanding till the end how that honour had come upon me—functioned in close co-operation with the City Government. Yet for all the friendliness of the City and its Government—the occasional spat over questions such as parking tickets notwithstanding, spats in which the diplomats who ignorantly cited the Vienna Convention on matters of their privileges and immunities were in the wrong—the City could be gauche on matters of diplomatic protocol, or so it seemed to those tutored in these matters. Or else, diplomats were brought down a few notches, as they were after all not as important in the life of the City as they seem to be in other places, especially in Third World capitals.
Consuls General, unlike Ambassadors, do not present letters from their Heads of State introducing them to the receiving Head of State. In New York, they just arrived and started doing whatever they were meant to do, though many Consuls General there had earlier been Ambassadors of their countries—at least one styled himself Ambassador Consul General and another, the Consul General of Australia had been a government minister in one of the states of Australia—and were used to the principle of precedence among Ambassadors. In New York they made a formal call on the Mayor soon after their arrival.
I had an appointment for a call on Mayor Edward Koch on the same morning as the Swiss Consul General who had been his country’s Ambassador to the Republic of Korea. He had arrived in the City after me.That morning, we were seated on a simple bench in a corridor in the City Hall. A secretary came to invite the Swiss to the Mayor’s office. Thinking of my precedence, he signalled to me to go first. Even before I could answer, the secretay sternly commanded the Swiss to follow her. Then came my turn. The Mayor and I chatted for about ten minutes in his quite modest, work like office. Then he got up to present a New York City tie to me saying I should wear it often as it would protect me from thieves, muggers and robbers—an injunction I followed religiously, wearing that tie till it started fraying, but also completing my stay in the city without being mugged or robbed. He had barely finished giving me this gift when he turned to say to his secretary: ‘Oh! I forgot to give the tie to the other gentleman’ and sent her chasing after the Swiss Consul General. She escorted the ‘other gentleman’ back to the Mayor’s office to receive his tie as I took leave. I wondered if the other gentleman missed any of the pomp surrounding the presentation of letters of introduction by ambassadors to Heads of State. I did not.
David Dinkins, another Democrat who succeeded Edward Koch was inaugurated as Mayor of New York on a cold New Year’s Day morning in 1991. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Chief Guest on that occasion, was a star attraction. Like other Consuls General, I, accompanied by my wife had been invited to the inaugural. The front, extended portion of the plinth of the City Hall served as the platform on which the Mayor, Archbishop Tutu and other participants in the ceremonies were seated. The audience was seated below on the grounds around that platform. The Consuls General were seated, not facing the speakers on the platform, as they would have expected to do elsewhere, but in one of the wings as it were, almost as if to ensure for them the minimum visibility of the proceedings no matter how they craned their necks. Archbishop Tutu’s high-pitched voice, distorted by the public address system, and the chill are all that I remember of that ceremony. Cocktails in an uncomfortably overcrowded room followed the inaugural ceremony—it was impossible to get anything to drink and eat unless you were a trapeze artiste. There were no other similar receptions in the City Hall to which I was invited. There were others in Gracie Mansion on the East River, the Mayor’s official residence, which were well organized, elegant, and a pleasure to go to.
A little more than one and a half years later, in July 1992, the Democratic Party held its National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City to elect its candidate for the November 1992 Presidential election. I, as Consul General had an invitation, for myself and my wife, to the concluding, public session. When we arrived there, no one knew where to seat us. The fifth or sixth person to whom I repeated that I was Consul General of India in New York and showed our invitation card, catching the word India, decided that we should be seated with the delegates from Indiana and that is the part of the hall we were sent to. Our arrival among the Democrats of Indiana looked probably so incongruous to the ushers that they asked us, soon after they had seated us, who we were. When I said once again that I was Consul General of India in New York, someone decided that our proper place was among the delegates from New York which is where we were sent off. New York delegates were in an area just below the stage, facing it. There were no seats. We quietly went and stood among New York Democrats. There was no other diplomatic or consular representative there. No one around us showed the slightest curiosity about us. The noise and the general air of levity and bonhomie among the participants made any conversation impossible.
Very soon the ‘celebrations’ started. From where we stood we got the best possible ringside view. The announcement of the nomination of Bill Clinton and Al Gore as Presidential candidate and his running mate, the speech by the Democratic Party Chairman and the acceptance speeches, the music, the balloons, the hugs and kisses and the dances that the people on the stage broke into, the backslapping camaraderie and the enveloping air of merriness all looked like a well-rehearsed scene in a musical comedy. I did not wish to spoil my mood by dark reflections about the purpose of such political shows—for the nomination of Bill Clinton and his running mate had been a foregone conclusion weeks before the Convention in New York—nor about the dour-faced glumness and the unctuous bombast of Indian politicians at Indian political shows. Returning home, I thought of the minor storm my wife and I had caused in Bangladesh, being photographed standing by the roadside, watching a political procession go by.
I SHOULD GO BACK IN TIME to 1989. Karan Singh, the new Indian ambassador to the USA who was going to ‘assume charge of his Mission’ in early August that year was keen that I be in New York in time for the India day parade there on the first weekend after 15 th August, the Indian Independence Day. He told me he was going to be there for that ‘important’ occasion. In time I was to learn not only that such parades in New York City organized by different ethnic groups which inhabited the New York area on days important in the national lives of their countries of origin were part of city life, but also that the most talked about and the largest of these was the St.Patrick’s Day parade organized by the Irish community. Participating in these celebrations was almost obligatory for the consuls general of different countries. The relatively small but vocal Indian community succeeded in ensuring that beside the Indian Consul General, the Indian Ambassador in Washington D.C. and occasionally the Indian Ambassador to the U.N. also joined in. Every year a well-known Indian film actor or actress came on invitation to be part of the parade and, unsurprisingly, overshadowed the Indian diplomatic or consular representatives in the eyes of the participating crowds. The film actors or actresses addressed the gaathering, often holding forth on matters of national importance, and were probably heard with much greater attention than the Indian Ambassador to America. An Indian Consul General kept out of these parades at his own peril. For that year I had to tell Karan Singh that my hierarchical superior in the Ministry of External Affairs wanted me to stay on at my desk in Delhi for a few more days, making it impossible for me to be in New York in time for the parade.
Another event, a gathering of people of Indian origin from many countries of the world opened in New York City on the day after my arrival there. Madhav Rao Scindia, India’s Minister of Railways, came to take part in these meetings on behalf of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Though Indians living in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut dominated this meeting, there were contingents from elsewhere in the U.S.A., the U.K. and France; there was a group of five prominent political leaders of the Indian community in Fiji, as there were leaders of the Indian community in different countries in the Caribbean.
People who had gathered in New York for this occasion formed a disparate group and suffered from all the weaknesses from which Indians suffer when they try to organize themselves. The ‘leaders’ of different groups vied for the limelight. There was competition for the attention of the Indian minister and, to a smaller extent, of the Indian Ambassador in Washington. People manoeuvered for positions as office bearers in the new organization, the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, or GOPIO for short that the New York meeting set out to establish. GOPIO, when established, was already riven into two factions by the time I left New York three years later. There were, nonetheless, three concerns or expectations which overarched all the divisions. First of all there was the desire among the participants to gain recognition from the government and the people of India that they were a significant group of people who had not only made successes of their lives in the countries to which they had migrated but were also capable of making contributions to the progress and prosperity of India if they were given the opportunity and the facilities. Secondly they had a charter of demands from the Government of India, the most prominent being the demand for granting dual citizenship—a demand which was repeated with increasing force over the next decade and which Government of India is now getting ready to grant to people of Indian origin living in a select number of countries. Other groups, such as the Indians from Fiji, looked up to India for diplomatic, moral, political and other support in their struggles for rights and recognition in their countries of adoption. Finally, there was the desire among the participants to be taken note of by the world at large. Participants from the United States who were the most numerous talked of the need for Indians to take active part in American political processes and to influence them—a little ambitious, it seemed to me, for a community which at that time was a little under one million strong. There were others who, when talking to people in Government of India, made claims they could mediate with insurgent groups in the Punjab or Kashmir or promote India’s interests with the US Administration. There were enough people in India to wilfully accept such claims.
In the least, the meeting in New York accelerated a process which over the years has changed the relationship between India and people who have emigrated from the country.Through the centuries Mother India had forgotten those who had gone to live on other shores. Thus not only is there very little trace in Indian literature or folk memory of those who went to Southeast Asia in the first millennium after Jesus Christ, but also there is generally very little memory in the Indian villages of those who in the 19 th and early 20 th century went to Fiji, Mauritius, the Caribbean, or South Africa. That has changed. In today’s world it is impossible for Mother India not to be aware of her expatriate children. Years earlier, in 1971, Idi Amin Dada, by mistreating and expelling people of Indian origin from Uganda, had created conditions for Mother India being from then on deeply concerned about the well being of those of her children who had gone away. The transformation brought about by Idi Amin has come to stay. No government in India can any longer be indifferent to the lot of people of Indian origin living abroad.
Because of this conference, I came to meet during the first week of my New York stay, a large number of people and groups of people of Indian origin whom I would have to meet, deal with or get to know better during the next three years. Early acquaintance with one section—the 600,000 or so who lived in the northeast of the United States—of what was going to be an important part of my parish was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Barring an unknown number, but probably around 100,000, who were unskilled workers, some of whom had come in and stayed illegally, most of the remaining 500,000 or so were first generation immigrants engaged in professions such as engineering, medicine, insurance, law or trade and members of their families. Many of them were prosperous and successful. A few claimed affiliation to Indian political parties such as the Indian National Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party and kept in touch with politicians in those parties.
An Indian politician, whether in government or out of it, would have, when visiting New York, a posse of followers taking care of him, following him wherever he went. Some politicians from small Indian political parties would have a one or two man following. A lawyer friend of an Indian government minister from one such political party preened himself and strutted about importantly when that minister came on a visit to New York. The minister suggested I consult the lawyer over his programme. That was not difficult since the minister had no official business in the city. Since the minister’s political party was ‘socialist’, he could not afford to pay his substantial bar bill at the hotel he was staying in. His lawyer friend, who might well have consumed some of the stuff the bill covered, was supremely unconcerned. There was no way I could authorize payment out of my office account. I found a devious solution to this problem, keeping my honesty technically intact and not forcing the issue with the minister. With a change of government in Delhi, this minister lost his job. With that his lawyer friend in New York receded into the background.
Politicians with larger followings posed no problems such as unpaid food and beverages bills, though with changes in their fortunes in India the self-importance of their New York followers waxed or waned too. The nature of relations between some Indian politicians and their New York followers belonged partly to the world of rumour or innuendo with which I thought it best not to busy myself. What did make a demand on my time was the unwritten obligation of the Consul General to be present at any show put up by people in the Indian community to honour a visiting Indian politician.
Thinking of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, I wanted to say once to an eminent Indian professor at New York’s Columbia University—a man who found time to take part in many Indian community functions—that most of the Indians in the USA, other than the working class, belonged to Snow’s second culture. He interrupted me to say that they belonged to no culture. That was an exaggeration. There were many people of very high achievement among Indians in the USA. They were so busy in their pursuits that they neither had time for nor interest in the activities of the Indian community or the movements of Indian politicians and diplomats. You had to seek them out if you wanted to meet them.
Some wore their ‘patriotism’ on their sleeves. One of these, a resident of Jersey City proclaimed himself an activist of the Congress party in India. A spot on the Fifth Avenue, barely forty yards from the New India House, the locale of the Consulate General of India, was a favourite stopping place for Pakistanis demonstrating against India. They would stand or sit there, hold anti-India placards and shout anti-India slogans. As one such demonstration was on, this Congress Party activist came to meet me with the suggestion that he and three or four of his followers were going to sit amidst the Pakistanis and hold their own anti-Pakistani placards and shout ant-Pakistani slogans. Afraid that in doing so these patriots might create an ugly situation, I used all my dissuasive powers to stop them. I succeeded. Talking to them on this occasion I suggested half seriously that they might organize their own independent ant-Pakistani demonstration in front of the Pakistani consulate on another day, if they felt so strongly. They did not.
Others who formed different associations or gathered around Indian politicians, officials or holy men lived in a world of confused values. They had little contact with or knowledge of the wider world of America outside the narrowly defined area of their work. They had velleities for better understanding Indian history, culture and politics of which they had no more than partial, distorted understanding. Having made in their own eyes successes of their lives, they thirsted for recognition in India. These urges impelled them to consort with all manner of ‘dignitaries’ from India, serious people and charlatans, politicians and heads of religious sects, people with definite purposes and those escaping the high temperatures of India in the summer months. Indian ‘dignitaries’, for their part, found, in the company of Indians, congenial atmosphere, familiar food and ready audiences for their logorrhoeal outpourings. Indian associations—some were regional such as Andhra, Kerala, or Punjabi while others were community based such as Rana, Marthomite, Syrian Christian, Rajput, Brahman and so on—existed mainly for occasions such as a feast or a festival or welcoming a visiting Indian. Since everyone was busy during the week, working for his livelihood, meetings of these associations were organized mostly on weekends. They were for this reason occasions for their members for ordinary social intercourse. Though most of the different Indian associations had little else to do beyond organizing these occasional gatherings, many people considered positions of office bearers in them important enough prizes to politick and quarrel over.
A claim made by many who wished to establish their importance with official India was that they were well known to this or that important American political personality. There was one who claimed proximity to Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts. Another said he was close to a New York Congressman. Congressman Stephen Solarz who had championed in the Congress and outside many causes of political and diplomatic importance to India and who made an effort to cultivate Indians was a favourite of nearly all Indian groups. Indians who claimed personal friendship with him were countless. Sometimes such claims looked comic and at others they created awkward situations. For the New York meeting of Indians in August 1989, the organizers had invited Senator John Kerry to address a plenary. When the Indian Minister who had come on behalf of the Indian Prime Minister asked some of the organizers where Kerry was a senator from, they could not tell.
In late 1991 or early 1992, an Indian from New Jersey invited us to dinner at his house saying that one of his other guests would be a Democratic Senator and a possible Presidential candidate in 1992. Soon after we arrived, our host whispered to me that the dinner party was actually a fundraiser for the Senator. He added that though in name his guests were each going to contribute 1000 dollars or less per head (within the statutory limit for individual contributions to election funds at that time), in reality the entire contribution of some 30000 dollars that evening was being made personally by the host. When I said to him that if I had known that that was a fund raising event for a politician’s Presidential bid I would not have come, he grinned and said nothing. The Senator saw nothing unusual about our being present there. It took me some time to understand that one reason why we had been invited that evening was that our host wanted us to see how close he was to the American Senator who incidentally dropped out of the Presidential race long before the Democratic Party Convention of 1992. In time I learnt to discount claims by Indians about the extent of their influence with the American political, business or official establishment. My estimate since then of the value of expatriate Indians’ assistance in attaining India’s diplomatic objectives abroad has been much lower than the estimate of Indian politicians.
There is one view among Indian politicians with which I have had considerable difficulty. It is thought that enhancing facilities available in India for people of Indian origin settled abroad, particularly those in the UK and the USA would encourage them to invest in Indian business and industry. There is no empirical evidence that investment flows from Indians in the USA or the UK or elsewhere in the industrialized world have increased as Government of India has enhanced facilities for them in India. This view ignores the reality that investment flows, whether from people of Indian origin or others, will depend on expectations about returns, perceptions about the security of the investment and other factors such as the quality of the infrastructure, corruption, extent of governmental regulation and the quality of governance. Emotions such as patriotism might influence decisions about philanthropic action but not about investment. To a visiting Indian Minister of State for Finance I gave a short note arguing that the grant of dual citizenship was not going bring in higher flows of investment capital from people of Indian origin. He was not impressed. There are always many people like him in the Indian government.
There was a belief in some circles that my influence on the Indian community in northeastern states was so strong that I could persuade them to contribute funds towards causes dear to some American institutions. Two professors from Columbia University came across in 1991 with the proposition that if the Indian community in New York raised 1.2 million dollars, Columbia could tap into US federal government grants for another 300,000 dollars to make up 1.5 million dollars for creating an endowment with which to pay for a full time Professor in Indian studies at the university. I told them it was going to be very difficult to raise that money. One of the two, who had spent many years in India and had some understanding of the attitudes of people in the Indian community, agreed saying that people would much more readily contribute towards the construction of a temple. I said that during my New York stay we would not be able to raise even a quarter of the 1.2 million, but promised to get the process started. With seed money of five thousand dollars, which I persuaded a jeweller friend to put up, we got Columbia to open a separate account for the purpose. I cannot remember how much money had been raised by the time I left New York. I heard in 2001 that they had raised 1.5 million but the money needed by then for an endowed chair of a professor was 2.5 million. Similarly, the curator of a rather unique India section in a small museum in Salem, north of Boston, wanted my help in raising funds for her section. No one in the Indian community in the Boston area was interested. Not many visited the museum. The Asia Society in New York could not interest anyone in the Indian community in making contributions to its corpus other than the Hinduja brothers from London.
Expatriate Indian communities on the contrary looked towards Indian diplomatic representatives for enhancing their status and prestige in their country of domicile. It is possible that in New York I developed prejudices against them but the views I formed there stayed with me in the years that followed. I have found it especially difficult to tolerate those Indians, of whom there are a few wherever there are Indian communities, who set themselves up as ‘advisers’ of Indian diplomatic representatives not only on personal matters but on matters such as the ‘real’ state of affairs in the host country or on what policies India should pursue towards the host. I have found such ‘advisers’ ignorant or their ‘advice’ motivated.
IN THE INDIAN GENERAL ELECTION IN DECEMBER 1989, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Party lost. A new government led by V. P. Singh’s Janata Dal took over in Delhi. For its survival in parliament, the V. P. Singh government depended on the support of 84 members of parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP and of the 50 or so members of the two communist parties of India and their leftist allies. Although, neither the leftists nor the BJP joined the V. P. Singh government, both propped it up as neither wanted to see the Congress Party alone or in coalition with others in power. Many in the USA concluded that since the support of the BJP was so crucial for the Singh government, it would be able to dictate to it. The New York Times for example published some comments suggesting that in the new political situation in India, the rights of religious minorities might be at risk. Talking to A.M.Rosenthal of the New York times I argued that at the December 1989 election the BJP had increased its popular vote to a little more than 11% from its previous best of just over 9%—these figures hardly bespoke a large swing in BJP’s favour. I added that the BJP disliked being called sectarian essentially because of their understanding of the temperament of the Indian electorate. Anxieties about the rights of religious minorities and the separation of religion and state were exaggerated, I said. Rosenthal asked if I could send him a letter saying all that. The letter I wrote to him was the closest I have ever come to defending the BJP.
Two church groups, which raised funds in the USA to support the Christian Medical Colleges of Ludhiana and Vellore, kept in touch with me. They would ask me to come and meet them occasionally to talk about developments in India. Many in these groups had either spent years in India or had had long associations with the country. They were expectedly interested in the welfare of Christians in India. In 1990, because of the dependence of the government in Delhi on the support of the BJP in parliament, these church groups expressed anxieties about the rights of India’s Christian minority. Talking to them, I used the same arguments as I had used with Rosenthal, adding that given the nature of India’s polity and the composition of its population the country could be governed only from the centre and not from positions of political extremes. I felt I did not fully convince many.
I told I. K. Gujral, the Minister of External Affairs who had come for the UN General Assembly in September 1990, of the anxieties about the future of Indian religious minorities, and asked him if there was some argument I could use. Gujral said I could tell people that religious minorities were safe in India ‘as long as we are in power’. I knew that that argument would not wash and did not use it. I thought to myself that among the most effective would be words of reassurance directly from a BJP spokesman to these church groups. I telephoned a BJP Member of Parliament who was on a visit to New York. Explaining to him the anxieties I was trying to deal with, I asked him if he would like to meet these groups. I added that any words of reassurance they heard directly from him would have a deep impact. He flatly refused to meet them adding in an indistinct mumble something about the issue of conversions in India.
I was not surprised when a decade or so later, with the BJP in control of Government of India, their workers and sympathizers decided that under ‘their own government’ they could take liberties with the lives and property of Christians and Muslims. I also found it humiliating, as an Indian, that the BJP led government should have felt obliged to offer reassurances to India’s Christian community as well as to the world, after strong disapproval in the USA, Europe and from the Vatican. We could have done without this tweaking of our ears by foreign powers, had the BJP and its leadership been less benighted.
IN DECEMBER 1991, President George Bush Senior addressed the Asia Society of New York. That speech was originally to be made on the eve of his departure on a tour of East and Southeast Asia. The visit was postponed in the face of criticism in the Congress—the Congress, as the President quipped, did not wish to be left home alone. A few weeks later, a rescheduled tour took him to Japan among other countries. Not only did he become a butt of jokes in the USA because of an embarrassing sickness at the Japanese Emperor’s banquet in his honour but also some described him derisively as a car salesman, as the CEO’s of the three major US automobile manufacturers, who had long sought easier access for their products in the Japanese market, accompanied the President. At his Asia Society speech, which I heard as an invited member of the audience, George Bush talked of the importance of Asia, of the need for the USA to be engaged there. He spoke mainly of economic relations, talking in passing of political and security issues. He spoke about individual countries of Asia from Myanmar to Japan. There was never once a mention either of India or of any country of the Indian sub-continent.
For a little over six months in 1990, a book called Megatrends 2000, an exercise in futurology, had been in the first ten on the New York Times’ list of best-selling hard cover non-fiction books, among the top three most of that time. Arguing that such a widely sold book would inevitably mould the opinion of a large section of the American reading public, I wrote a brief comment on it in September that year for the benefit of the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi. Almost as if to confirm my suspicion that my labours were in vain, the foreign secretary of the time to whom I had sent that comment told me when I asked him during one of his visits to New York that he had forwarded it to another official in Government of India, a ‘high priest of the free market’, he said with a touch of sarcasm. He gave me the impression that he did not care much for those comments of mine or for the views contained in that book. Another official responded by forwarding to me a copy of a comment in some magazine about the negative effects of modernization and liberalization on the Chinese economy.
To me Megatrends 2000, represented a contemporary worldview of a group of intellectuals whose ideas formed the basis of that view. It was first of all a paean of American values of freedom, democracy and free market capitalism, which in the eyes of many Americans had triumphed over the values represented by the Soviet Union and by those countries which had based their politics and economics on Marxism-Leninism. It went on to describe the situation of those countries that would shape the world at the beginning of the next millennium. Apart from the USA and Europe, not only Japan and China but also the ‘tiger’ economies of East and Southeast Asia figured prominently in that view of the future. India and the countries of the Indian subcontinent were nowhere mentioned. In my comment on the book I had added my reflections about the much greater success of the Asian tigers than India when measured against any important index of human development and asked if India should not also radically revise its economic policies.
It was sobering to think of the relative inconsequence of India in the eyes of Americans. Different people have tried to give different explanations. I thought that probably the most important reason was the slenderness of US economic ties with India. For me this was the defining view of Indo-US relations. Once when in 1990 or 1991, I had gone to speak to a group at New York’s Fordham University, I made some observations about how small US economic interests in India were. I said that, for example, total American investments in India at that time were around 500 million dollars and two-way trade between the two countries around 6 billion. Someone in the audience corrected me to say that total American investments in India were 483 million dollars or thereabouts. One of the clichés of the history of Indo-American relations, very often repeated in formal speeches on the subject made by Indians, is that during the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt put the British Government under great pressure to make progress towards Indian independence. I do not know how often and how many Indians have thanked the USA for helping the cause of Indian independence. Roosevelt was no doubt impelled by his attachment to the values of freedom and liberty. It was not said even privately that Roosevelt might also have been prompted by the American interest in knocking down the system of imperial preferences which restricted access to large markets like India to trade from outside the British Empire. The American optimism and enthusiasm about India of the years after India’s independence wilted as India built fortifications round its economy from the end of the decade of the 1950’s.
By comparison, economic ties had become the backbone of the USA’s relations with the countries of East and Southeast Asia. To an increasing extent economics came to dominate Sino-American relations too. China’s trade surplus with the USA at that time far exceeded the total value of Indo-US trade. If Japan, a close ally and important economic partner, appeared a menacing economic giant making Japan bashing a popular American sport in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, relations between the USA and Japan in the main did not suffer. Economics clearly drove politics. Soon after the Tien An Men square events of 1989 and the consequent, mainly Western outcry about the ‘murder’ of democracy by the Chinese Government, it was Henry Kissinger, I think, who, reacting to the protests, said that no US Government could watch passively if a hostile, banner-wielding crowd of one million gathered under the Washington monument. The Chairman of one of the larger US corporations with a historical connection with China and extensive business interests in the Far East said to me once that he did not quite understand the American drive for democracy in China; after all there were no massive groups of Chinese in China clamouring for democracy. It was interesting to see how pragmatic views like these determined US dealings with China and not ideological, emotional outbursts of Human Rights groups. I found it instructive then and afterwards to see how the USA and China managed their relations.
During the Rajiv Gandhi years in India there was talk of taking India into the twenty-first century, of opening up the Indian economy to foreign investment, of encouraging private enterprise and of India having a new class of consumers of about 200 million people with the spending power of an average Greek or an average Portuguese. The salesmanship was effective enough for a number of European and American business groups to start looking at India. PepsiCo and Kellogg sought an entry and found footholds in the Indian market. They soon concluded that many more changes were needed in the way India did things for foreign business to consider India a friendly place. In brief, in business circles in the USA the Rajiv Gandhi ‘liberalization’ made no significant impression. Rajiv Gandhi’s successor, V. P. Singh, theoretically an economic liberal, was far too caught up in his own labyrinths to make any impact.
The CNN’s Moneyline Programme came to talk to me in 1990 about India’s economic policies. They had me talking to them on camera for about fifteen minutes. I did what I could to defend Indian economic policies up to then and to persuade my audience that India in 1990 was truly committed to private enterprise, free market, free trade and was open to foreign investment capital. At the end of those fifteen minutes the head of the CNN crew told me that they would have me on screen for about ten seconds. In the event they were a little more generous and had me on screen close to fifteen seconds. The programme as it was aired had, beside me, clips of a conversation with Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University who appeared for roughly the same length of time as I, and the Vice-President of PepsiCo in charge of their Indian operations who had much longer footage than either of us. He talked of the difficulties his company and other prospective investors still faced in India. The script accompanying the television visuals suggested by and large that India had still to go a long distance before it could be considered business friendly. Nothing of what I had said was reflected in that script but I supposed my appearance on that programme would have given viewers the impression that the script had been based in part on CNN’s talk with me. Incidentally, one American business establishment had other interests. It sent me a letter congratulating me on my appearance on a CNN programme. It was sure I would cherish that moment and offered me a still picture from my CNN appearance for the price of a little over 37 dollars. I decided I had better use for that money.
There was enough interest in the economic potential of India for different publications such as the Newsweek, the Businessweek, even the Foreign Affairs quarterly (now a bi-monthly) to bring out advertisement sections on India as inserts. My office did what it could to facilitate the work of those who prepared the publication of such sections. The writers of texts in each case described what had been done in India but all of them said that a great deal still needed to be done by way of deregulation and improvement in bureaucratic procedures. The label that stuck on India was that of a caged tiger which The Economist of London had used on the cover of a special section on India that they brought out in 1991. In private conversations many of our interlocutors tended to dismiss India as a worthwhile economic partner. The friendlier ones, particularly those who had lived in India or visited it, talked wistfully of the need to free the energies of the private Indian entrepreneur. Those of us who were in the Indian Embassy in Washington or in the Indian Consulates in other cities were engaged in selling a product called economic liberalization in India by which was meant the bouquet of policies which included the removal of government controls on the establishment, expansion and functioning of business, on the introduction of foreign investment capital, privatization of large sections of state owned industry and the simplification of bureaucratic procedures. Our problem was that we were trying to sell something which was not there. There naturally were no buyers.
IN THE SPRING of 1991, Government of India faced a major balance of payments crisis. India’s foreign currency reserves were so depleted that India, concerned with its creditworthiness, not only turned to the IMF for balance of payments support but also had to borrow against its gold reserves. Indian newspapers published details of Reserve Bank of India’s gold being airlifted for placement in the vaults of the Bank of England, to be kept there in hock as it were. The crisis, the negotiations with the IMF and the assumption of office by P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister of India followed each other closely. Narasimha Rao’s Government removed a number of controls on business and industry under Government of India’s Industrial Licensing law and abolished the absolute limits on the size of a business under its Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices law. New conditions were laid down for an industrialist or a businessman to obtain ‘automatic clearance’ for his investment proposal, those for him to get ‘clearances’ from the Indian Ministry of Industry aand those under which ‘clearances’ must come from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board which was lodged in the Prime Minister’s office. These changes in Indian industrial licensing policies, attempts to reduce budgetary deficits and the realignment of the external value of the Indian Rupee were all widely seen to have been introduced under pressure from the IMF by people in Government of India who had for long administered and defended controls. Other people said that the changes were based on the convictions of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister of India.
In the eyes of many in India, the changes were monumental; at least that is how Government of India wanted to present them to the world. Some people in Delhi thought and talked as if this was the beginning of a new age which would bring a rush of private foreign capital. The Indian foreign secretary wrote a little later to heads of Indian diplomatic missions saying that it was going to be their principal responsibility to promote the inflow of private foreign capital, exhorted them to organize publicity, talks and seminars and said that their performance would be judged by their action in these areas. I wrote in response to point at the difficulty of projecting images in selected places, arguing that many media organizations based in different places in the world were global in their reach. I illustrated my point saying that a favourable piece printed in the New York Times could quite easily be neutralized by a critical article the same day or during the same week published in the Financial Times of London, for example. I did not stop to ask myself if what I wrote convinced anyone. This was not the first time the Indian establishment looked upon publicity, advertisement and image projection as substitutes for action. Much as India would have liked the world to view these changes as genuine liberalisation, the business community and others in the USA saw them as no more than a good beginning. They were curious to know what other changes would follow and at what pace. Disappointment at the slowness of change was to come soon. In the decade after 1991, India did not drown in a flood of foreign private capital. As I write this more than a decade later, the US Ambassador in India still talks of the need for the simplification of procedures and the removal of bureaucratic red tape. Different other people twelve years after the 1991 liberalisation still bemoan the low level at which investment capital flows into India.
In this campaign for selling the 1991 ‘liberalisation’ of the Indian economy there was enacted a farce in which I was a marginal player. The Indian Finance Minister was expected to come to Wasshington D.C. in the spring of 1992 for the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF. An additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, evidently mindful of the foreign secretary’s exhortations about publicizing the ‘liberalisation’, had thought up a meeting in New York of leaders of American business to be addressed by the Indian Finance Minister. Citibank India would pay for two full pages of advertisement in the New York Times about Indian achievements and about business opportunities in India and would take care of other expenses too; the New York Times would take care of the venue of the meeting and would be named one of its sponsors and the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen would make available its database of contacts and drum up attendance apart from being one of the sponsors.
I suggested an alternative after speaking both to the Asia Society in New York and to the concerned people at the Citicorp Headquarters which was that the Finance Minister use the Asia Society as his platform and the Citicorp would sponsor the event as they often did in the case of Asia Society. The Asia Society, which was willing, would also find other sponsors—to my mind this would have the additional advantage that the Finance Minister’s presentation would not be just a Citibank-sponsored show. I also said that a two page advertisement would have no influence whatever on the editorial policy of the New York Times. But the position of the additional secretary in the External Affairs Ministry would not change even after I reported the conclusions of a meeting I had with a Vice President of the Asia Society, the Asia Group Executive from the Citicorp, a senior representative of the marketing department of the New York Times and a representative of Arthur Andersen.
The New York Times man told me that they had no experience of organizing meetings of this kind and would require help from others. The Arthur Andersen man said his main contribution would be the list of invitees. The Citicorp was prepared to go along with any arrangement we accepted. I gathered that the New York Times marketing and the Arthur Andersen men in India, both Indians, had done some glib but effective talking at the Ministry of External Affairs. I also gathered, as we were exchanging messages or talking over the telephone, that the Ministry of Finance in India was opposed to the arrangements proposed by the Ministry of External Affairs. One of them was opposed also to my formula, dismissing the Asia Society as a mere debating club—the Asia Society has since then climbed higher in the estimation of the Indian establishment, I believe. At one stage, someone in the Prime Minister’s office telephoned to express weariness over the differences between the two ministries of Government of India and said that I should use my judgment and finalize the arrangement I thought best. I was advised by the Indian Ambassador in Washington not to go against my own ministry of tutelage, no matter what advice had come to me from the Prime Minister’s office.
One day the additional secretary in my ministry of tutelage telephoned to say that it had been agreed between the foreign secretary and the finance minister that the finance minister’s public appearance in New York would be according to the plans of the Ministry of External Affairs. When I asked that a telex message be sent to me, the foreign secretary from whose desk, unbeknown to me, that telephone call was made, came on the line to ask me if there was a problem. I said that the only problem was that the Ministry of Finance in Delhi was opposed to those arrangements. At that the foreign secretary said that I was not working under the instructions of the Ministry of Finance but under those of the Ministry of External Affairs and that I should do what the additional secretary had asked me to do. I said: ‘Yes Sir’—saying to myself that if ‘Yes Sir’ and ‘No Sir’ was all that the man wanted, that was what he was going to get. I still suspected that not all was as certain as these people wanted to tell me and asked for a confirmation. Even after I received a cleverly worded confirmation—a little too clever I thought—I decided to go only half throttle at first. Then came a message from Delhi saying the Finance Minister was not coming to the USA. A few days later the Vice President of Asia Society told me that one evening, returning to his hotel room in Taipei or Hong Kong—I forget which—he found a message which had been slipped under the door saying that the Indian Finance Minister was after all not going to the USA. Looking at it, he smiled to himself, he said. I told him I also smiled when I saw a similar message.
MORE PEOPLE IN THE USA showed interest in the direction the Indian economy was taking than those who were interested in the problem of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet the problem would not go away partly due to the exertions of Pakistan but in large measure due to rising militancy and violence in Kashmir. Apart from the issue giving life to the triangle of India-Pakistan-USA relationship in the realm of private diplomatic discussions, concern of human rights groups over the counter-insurgency operations of Indian security forces in the state shaped reporting and comment by the news media. Pakistan as well as groups sympathetic to Kashmiri militants did what they could to manipulate news coverage by presenting each major counter-insurgency operation in the state as an example of atrocity or of the violation of the human rights of Kashmiris. Independently of the question whether Indian troops violated the human rights of Kashmiris—many in Government of India would privately admit that on occasion Indian security forces might have committed excesses—I, like many others, saw that the human rights question was being used against India as an instrument of diplomacy which had to be dealt with according to the rules of that game.
In these times Western democracies, with the Anglo-saxons in the lead, were constructing the doctrine that the international community could not stand by and simply watch gross violations of human rights inside different countries. The trouble was that even the most vociferously protesting government would overlook violations of human rights in places where it judged it politic to be silent. People within the US administration would talk to Government of India about the excessive use of force by Indian security forces whenever there were reports of ‘atrocities’ in Kashmir committed by the Indian army or the Indian police. I had heard that most foreign correspondents in Delhi at that time went and met one single lawyer in Srinagar from whom they picked up their stories about ‘atrocities’. As for Government of India, since the army and the police were engaged in counter-insurgency operations, some violence was inevitable.
For my office, such reports about atrocities in the New York Times were often a cause of concern. There was one incident of allegations of gang rape of some two dozen women in Kupwara by an Indian army detachment. The New York Times had published their India correspondent’s reports prominently on two or three days. The Indian army, having made its own enquiries and concluded that the accusations were false, was sensitive about this report. We sent a letter to the New York Times setting out our position. In our letter we naturally disagreed with the India correspondent of the Times. The New York Times’ reaction was more that of an institution concerned with its honour, reputation and the need to defend its own, than that of a newspaper. Rather than publish our letter, which is what we expected and which we thought was what any newspaper would normally do, their Managing Editor wrote us a letter defending the paper’s correspondent in India. It took a personal meeting between our Press Officer and the Deputy Foreign Editor of the paper to get that letter published.
FROM THE MEDIA AS WELL AS FROM THE ADMINISTRATION we were to be under pressure from 1990 onwards on nuclear proliferation related issues as much as on the the human rights of Kashmiris. We were looking for friends in the USA. There came a letter from Delhi some time in mid-1991 suggesting that we befriend American Jewish organizations. Except on one occasion when in 1990 a group led by a former US diplomat had met me to talk about relations between India and Israel, I had had no contacts with Jewish organizations in New York. I had known some New York Jews individually. One couple had invited us to the wedding of their daughter. The family had taken over for the occasion the restaurant Tavern on the Green on the edge of the Central Park. At the wedding there were, apart from friends and relations of the family from New York, some important Jewish leaders from Israel, such as the President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whom I met briefly. The Rabbi who performed the wedding, while pronouncing his blessings, also reminded the newly wed couple of their duties towards Israel—he meant both the people and the state, for he went on to make some brief political remarks about the security of the state.
On another occasion, when we had gone to see a film on Indian Jews at the Museum of Natural History to which the producer had invited us, I got talking to a gentleman sitting next to me, a New York Jew, as it turned out, with business in New Jersey. At the end of the show, he insisted on exchanging cards and asked if we would come home if he invited us. We not only said yes but also invited the gentleman and his wife over for dinner. In return they invited us over for a Sabbath dinner at their West side apartment saying a Sabbath dinner in a Jewish home was something special, which it was. In one of those encounters, the gentleman told me that for a Jew, three things were very important: the faith, the people and the Land. On another occasion another New York Jew told me that there would have been no Holocaust, had there been the State of Israel.
Thus, when, after the letter from Delhi about befriending American Jews, I met a member of the Anti-Defamation League, I had at the back of my mind a certain personal idea of the emotional attachment of Jews to the State of Israel. The gentleman from the Anti-Defamation League talked about his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi during one of his visits to the USA. He talked of India establishing normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Referring to his earlier discussions with Rajiv Gandhi and other people in Government of India, he complained that India had been shifting goalposts for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations.
After this meeting I wrote back to Delhi saying I would in the course of ensuing weeks meet other leaders of Jewish organizations but that we should understand clearly that we would not be able to win the friendship of American Jewish organizations unless we gave them the one thing they were asking for, which was normal diplomatic relations with Israel. I went on to describe how at different moments in the past it had been difficult for us to exchange embassies with Israel without harming our relations with the Arabs but that with the opening of the Madrid conference on the Middle East in October that year where a number of Arab states including Syria and Jordan were to publicly start direct talks with Israel, the main reason for our not having normal diplomatic relations with it would disappear. I suggested that our decision establishing normal diplomatic relations with Israel be announced immediately before or after the opening of the Madrid meeting. Later that year I wrote twice again suggesting early exchange of embassies.
The second of these letters was written in late December after a meeting I had at their request with three members of a federation or council of American Jewish organizations led by a gentleman by the name of Ken Bialkin. They said among other things that the People’s Republic of China had decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel and that the decision would be announced when Shimon Peres visited Beijing on 23 rd January 1992. I suggested to Delhi that for maximum impact we announce our decision about the exchange of embassies before the Peres visit to Beijing, adding for good measure that if we delayed our decision long enough we would reduce the risk of an outcry in the Arab world but we would also reduce the value of our decision. In actual fact India’s announcement of its decision followed that of China by six days.
There were no important repercussions in the Arab world or among the Muslim population of India. One or two weeks later Ken Bialkin invited us to a meeting over luncheon with some members of his organization. It was an occasion for expressing their appreciation for what they thought I had done. Speaking to the group I said that there was no reason why relations between India and Israel should not grow rapidly but added that there would continue to be disagreements between us on questions such as Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. I did not at that time know how irrelevant that note of caution would become and how rapidly.
OUR SEARCH FOR FRIENDS took us to Henry Kissinger. The Indian foreign secretary during one visit to the USA in 1990 asked for and got a meeting with Henry Kissinger in New York. The dealing joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and I accompanied the foreign secretary. Kissinger had two of his associates with him. The meeting was over breakfast at the Regency on Park Avenue—it was difficult to choose a place and time with greater visibility among the powerful and the influential in New York. Kissinger did not have to order his breakfast. The waiter brought his ‘usual’ platter of fruits. Others ordered what they wanted. One of Kissinger’s opening remarks was that when the British were in India their policy towards the Gulf and Central Asia was made not in London but in Delhi. The foreign secretary either did not see or did not wish to see what Kissinger was driving at and talked about the moral and philosophical foundations of India’s foreign policy. We then talked about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in India’s neighbourhood.
The conversation turned to the creation of an informal group of influential people in India and the USA, not in government but close enough to it to be able to influence it in either country, which would meet periodically to discuss the nature of relations the two countries should have. Kissinger agreed and cited the case of one or two countries in Europe with which the USA had such groups which had been very successful. He then said that during the Rajiv Gandhi years in India, the idea had made some progress and B.K.Nehru was to lead the group from the Indian side and Kissinger from the US. India first of all showed its insensitivity by naming an ex-communist in the group, forgetting the complexion of the Reagan White House, Kissinger said.
Kissinger added that in one of his preliminary discussions with B.K.Nehru he asked him what the group would discuss and Nehru said: Pakistan. Talking to us Kissinger explained his disappointment with Nehru’s answer saying that whatever India and the USA had to say to each other about Pakistan could be said in about ten minutes. We did not need a group of this kind to discuss Pakistan. The initiative of the Rajiv Gandhi years did not go far. Kissinger gave us the impression that he would be quite willing to be associated with a similar group if the idea were revived. At one stage in that conversation Kissinger said that he had the highest respect for the ability of India’s civil servants but could not say the same thing about Indian politicians many of whom had an exaggerated estimate of India’s power and position in the world. Whether Kissinger was being very shrewdly courtois to the Indian civil servant he was talking to that morning or whether he really thought what he said, I could not tell. I knew that such a remark coming from someone like Henry Kissinger was enough to soften even the toughest nosed Indian civil servant.
I went with the Indian ambassador in Washington to another meeting with Henry Kissinger in his office a few months later. I did not quite understand the purpose of that meeting. Kissinger repeated some of the things he had said to the Indian foreign secretary including the story about the informal bilateral group under his and B.K.Nehru’s leadership. He mentioned a futile and eventually failed attempt by some people to form an India-US friendship group in New York about which ‘some Indian General’—I knew that he meant General Inder Rikhye—had come to meet him. He also said that Zubin Mehta had written asking him to lead this group, but that though he was very fond of Zubin, he would not find the time. At one stage the ambassador decided to tell Kissinger, as if to a mentor, how he ran his embassy. Kissinger answered the ambassador approvingly as would a kindly don to his freshman pupil—if I noticed a tone of condescension it was possibly due to excessive sensitivity. He then advised the ambassador that lobbyists appointed for specific, well-defined purposes could play a helpful role in Washington while general purpose lobbyists were useless. The only thing such general purpose lobbyists did was to organize large parties to which no one important ever came but a large number of ‘free loaders’ did. I remember the remarks about lobbyists especially well because some months earlier in a letter to Delhi I had expressed exactly the same views, barring remarks about large parties, important people and free loaders, though on those too I thought similarly. The informal bilateral group did not get formed but one or two years later the Indian embassy in Washington did appoint a general-purpose lobbyist.
The Ambassador from Washington and I spent an evening in 1990 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking and listening to a group of writers and university people the Academy had gathered together. We talked about changes and advances in India. They talked about the country’s continuing backwardness, its antiquated methods of bureaucratic management, the rising influence of the BJP, and about India’s politics of the moment. At one stage the conversation turned to the problem of visas for foreigners going to India for academic research. I was sufficiently strongly stung by the remark of one person that evening saying that India was a democracy, which at times behaved like a police state, for me to take up the cause of foreign academic researchers.
If Government of India had started from the assumption that all foreign academic researchers wishing to work in India were enemy agents, saboteurs or people intent on lowering India’s prestige abroad, it could not have devised a more restrictive system than the one in place in 1990. To my mind this was senseless in that age for one reason that, given the speed and volume of the flow of information across the globe, it was impossible for the government to shape and control the image of the country in the minds of outsiders. Secondly, and this is the argument I used with Government of India, an American research scholar, say, wishing to go to India for academic research, was first of all highly educated and secondly interested in India. It was folly to alienate such a person. Yet Government of India insisted on a system which required that every foreign academic researcher’s application for visa be checked by the Indian ministries of home affairs and human resource development, and occasionally also receive a nod from the university where the scholar wished to work. If the scholar were lucky enough not to have his application thrown out by some xenophobic official, he would still have to wait for months before he got his visa, for in the inefficient Indian bureaucratic system it was impossible to speed up a decision when consultation with several agencies was necessary. No arguments, no pleading, harangues or outline proposals for a simplified system would move Government of India. In the end I accepted defeat and shut up.
In the autumn of 1989, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences brought out a special issue of its quarterly publication, Daedalus.It was on India and the editor, who was also the Secretary of the Academy, had named it ‘The Other India’. Contributors to the issue were all Indians, people of distinction in their fields. What they wrote was serious matter. They dealt with reality and were not concerned with presenting a rose garden. In fact some of the essays, for example the one on the state of scientific research in India which I specially remember, described a grim situation. The diversity of pictures about Indian reality, at some remove from the official picture, was found sufficiently interesting by the foreign secretary of the day for him to ask me to send a copy to each one of Indian embassies abroad. That issue of the Daedalus presented at best the capacity for self-examination of a group of Indian intellectuals, in addition to the quality of their minds.
A few years earlier, during almost the entire decade of the 1980’s Government of India, at considerable expenditure, had organized a series of exhibitions called the Festival of India, in the UK, the USA, France and the Soviet Union. The President of the Asia Society in New York, who had been closely associated with the Festival of India in the USA and who at that moment was involved in the organization of a Festival of Indonesia in the USA in the following year or the year after, had told me in 1989, rightly I thought, that these things had very short shelf lives. But that is by the way. The staple of these exhibitions was ancient Indian sculpture, Indian handicrafts and craftsmen and classical and popular Indian entertainment—there was a dancing bear under the Tour Eiffel during the Festival in France. I do not know if those who thought up these Festivals ever saw that these exhibitions to a very large extent confirmed in the minds of their audiences the orientalist image of India—a land of mysterious charm and strange customs—and whether that was their intention. In contrast with these two different kinds of presentations, our task was to present India as a vibrant, modern and modernizing democracy, a worthy economic and political partner in the comity of modern nations.
There was a personal opportunity I had in 1991 to speak one evening at a dinner organized by the Asia Society in New York. In its final form the evening became a curious amalgam of the celebration of India and the honouring of Senator John (Jay) Rockefeller. My brief speech was sandwiched between two preliminary speeches and a dance performance by Pandit Birjoo Maharaj, one of the foremost exponents of Kathak style of dancing. After that came Senator Rockefeller’s speech. I had been given five minutes and Birjoo Maharaj fifteen. I carefully thought out what I was going to say and made sure I kept to my five minutes. After I finished I realized that by keeping to my five minutes I had caused confusion. Pandit Birjoo Maharaj would not be ready for another six or seven minutes. I suspected that those who had planned that evening had assumed that like many of my countrymen I would ramble on for much longer than the five minutes given to me. The awkward six or seven minute gap had to be filled by an impromptu speaking act by the President of the Society.
In my speech I said there was one India of ancient history and rich cultural traditions of which Birjoo Maharaj would present a glimpse. There was another, modern India making considerable social and economic advances. I concluded saying that there could be no better guarantee of peace and stability in South Asia than a prosperous, democratic and self-assured India—if I had another minute or two I would have expanded those last three epithets. I do not know who in Delhi read the brief report I sent about the event including the full text of what I had said. Three or four people, including a senior member of the Rockefeller clan, came up to say how well they thought I had spoken and how apt my remarks were. But I felt the most flattered when a senior Thai diplomat told me at our first meeting in Bangkok in the year 2000 that he remembered me from that evening at the Asia Society where he was in the audience.
Any effort by India’s official and diplomatic machinery to shape and influence the image of the country in the eyes of the world outside had to contend with a number of formidable difficulties. Of these the first was the power of Western media organizations. It is a paradox that the intelligentsia in the Third World for example—and India is no exception—accept as the immutable, unquestioned truth what is presented by the international news media, for which read Western news media, about another place even while they may reject what the same organs say about their own country. Indian intelligentsia might take umbrage at critical remarks about India in the New York Times and yet accept unquestioningly what the same New York Times might say about Egypt. The second, related difficulty arises out of the fact that opinions in a major Western news organization are shaped by the élite of the country where the news organization belongs. The third difficulty is that it is the perceived interests of the élite that shape their opinion.
I have another story. At the time of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit to New York to attend the summit meeting of the UN Security Council in January 1992, there had been scheduled a meeting with him of a leading figure from the East Coast Establishment of the USA. As he waited for his time with the Indian Prime Minister, we talked about a dinner the previous night in honour of Boris Yeltsin at the Federal Reserve Bank. This gentleman said that compared to a little more than one year ago when as the President of the RSFSR of the Soviet Union he had been a guest at the Council on Foreign Relations, Boris Yeltsin was a changed man; he no longer talked like a street boy and during the entire evening he nursed and fondled his one glass of wine. Around that time the American media had also started treating Yeltsin more kindly than it had before the break up of the Soviet Union, as for the next five or six years, as America’s favourite Russian, Boris Yeltsin received from the USA all the support he needed. Our conversation about Boris Yeltsin was interrupted when the time came for this gentleman to meet the Indian Prime Minister. He said to the Prime Minister what he had to say. The Prime Minister listened to him without reacting. As we came out of the Prime Minister’s presence, this gentleman remarked saying that the Prime Minister seemed to be tired.
Ours was a forlorn cause. The image of India that stayed in the West and in the United States was that of a very complex country with a rich and ancient civilization, run by a bumbling, inefficient bureaucracy and venal politicians, a country with pervasive poverty and its attendant consequences, whose economy had under performed consistently, involved in an endless conflict with its neighbour Pakistan.Very few looked upon India as being in the same league as China so much so that most people saw India’s ‘nuclear option’ as a counter to threats from Pakistan rather than those from China. India was to be taken seriously more for its potential than for its actual strengths. There was precious little official India could do to change that image other than changing the reality itself.
TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENTS IN WORLD AFFAIRS that happened during my three year stay in New York were the 1991 Gulf War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since Saddam Hussein by his occupation of Kuwait had given ample reason for the USA to intervene militarily—legitimacy to US military action being given by the United Nations—the war was won easily. Many in the USA would have wanted the war to continue till the removal of Saddam Hussein. They were anxious when the US administration gave Iraq up to 15 th January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait fearing that Iraqi compliance would take away the justification for military action. Iraq did not comply, handing the US-led forces easy victory. The US administration had spared no effort for mobilizing opinion internationally and domestically, including the systematic demonisation of Saddam Hussein and the systematic presentation of Iraq as a threat to Saudi Arabia and its oil.
Although the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union did not come till the end of 1991, already before the end of 1990, the reunification of Germany and the rejection by Poland and Czechoslovakia of both communism and Soviet domination clearly meant that the USA and its allies had won the Cold War. The debate in the USA in 1989 and 1990 had been whether Gorbachev would succeed in reforming the Soviet system. Someone had written an article in the magazine Daedalus under the pseudonym Z—deliberately reminiscent perhaps of George Kennan’s famous X article of some forty years earlier—arguing that the Soviet system could not be reformed but only dismantled. Many people disagreed with that view. There were some fears about the disorder that would follow the break up of the Soviet Union. Such fears coloured President Bush Sr.’s speech at the Kyiv State University in 1990—a speech which was soon nicknamed the Kyiv chicken speech in post-Soviet Ukraine and elsewhere. In the minds of many in the USA in 1989 and 1990 the question was not whether the Soviet Union would break up but what turmoil would follow such an event.
It was not surprising that with the twin victories of 1990 and 1991—the Gulf War and the Cold War, with the break up of the Soviet Union in sight—the mood in the USA should have been one of triumph. After the Gulf War President Bush had called for a new world order. There were people who argued that the USA had finally gotten out of the military paralysis caused by the Vietnam War. Some time in late 1991 or in 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, now Deputy Defense Secretary of the USA, wrote an internal administration memo, abstracts of which were printed by some newspapers, suggesting that from then on one of the policy goals of the USA should be to prevent the rise of any rival power centre in the world.
A minor event and a brief conversation on the margin of that event started me thinking of the implications for India of this new mood. In mid-1991, there was a talk by the Indian Ambassador at the Asia Society of New York. At the lunch given along with the talk I found myself at the same table as the State Department point person for India and one of the office bearers of the Asia Society who had done a tour of duty as a diplomat in Delhi. At one point the conversation turned to India’s co-operative attitude during the Gulf War. The State Department official agreed but expressed some impatience with a senior Indian interlocutor who persisted in his ‘old’ opinions. It is that remark that set me thinking and trying to understand prevailing US opinions and attitudes.
I wrote two letters to Delhi. In the first I said that the mood in the US after the Gulf War was not only one of triumph but also one of intolerance of all criticism of US policies and disagreement with it. I suggested that while we should not unquestioningly accept all that the US said on everything, we should take care to limit the expression of our disagreements to private discussions. The tendency of our people, especially our political leaders to harangue publicly against the US whenever the first such opportunity came must go if we did not wish to create offense unnecessarily.
In the second, sent some time later, I suggested that in the new world after the end of the Cold War, power more than ideology or ideals would determine relations between states. Weak states were going to be at great disadvantage. The politics of organizing weak countries into pressure groups such as the Non-aligned Movement or the Group of 77 was going to be less relevant than ever before. In the world of the future there were going to be four or five power centers: the USA, a Russia with its power revived, the People’s Republic of China, a possible politically and militarily autonomous West Europe and a similarly autonomous Japan. World affairs would be characterized by shifting alliances among these four or five. In this world India could play a role if it had the necessary military and economic strength, national cohesion and a purposeful political leadership. I did not know if any of those letters were read and with what attention, for they provoked no reaction. I had by then developed the habit of expressing an opinion and not staying for an answer.
We have had since then a second Gulf War. We have in the USA an administration even more intolerant of criticism and difference of opinion than the one in 1991. Present day Russia has no capacity for matching American power. The People’s Republic of China manages its relations with the USA navigating between sensitivities about its sovereignty and American power. Japan and West Europe are still far from full autonomy in foreign policy and military matters. India is no closer now to playing a major role in world affairs than it was in 1991, perhaps a little more detached now from the rhetoric of the Non-aligned Movement and from that of Third World solidarity than it was then, still as embroiled with Pakistan as ever and still far from dealing with its basic economic, social and political problems.
I SHOULD ROUND OFF MY NEW YORK NARRATIVE with a story of my irreverence. In mid-August 1992, some three weeks before our departure from New York, I was to be on a ten-day motoring vacation in the USA with my wife and children. I had taken leave duly. We wanted above all to see the Grand Canyon and whatever of ‘real America’ was there in between. Just as we were getting ready to go, I heard that the Chief Minister of an Indian state reputed to be politically close to the Indian Prime Minister of the day, P.V.Narasimha Rao, would pass through New York City on his way back home from Washington D.C., coming by train before midday and catching a flight in the evening, on a day on which I would be away on vacation. He had no official business in the City. My office was perfectly capable of taking care of all the arrangements. Yet I was advised by someone in our embassy in Washington and later someone in Delhi that I should cancel my leave and be present in the City when the Chief Minister was there. I found this ridiculous, and, saying to myself that the leave of someone in my position was cancelled in an emergency, which the transit through the city of an Indian politician was not, I went ahead with our vacation.
On my return I found that the foreign secretary of the day had not only tried to talk to me on the telephone two thirds of the way across America but also sent a telex message asking me to cut short my vacation and return to New York immediately. Luckily for the foreign secretary, neither of his messages got to me while on vacation, for I would have to say no for the simple reason that I could just not be back in New York in time for the Chief Minister, even if I tried. In keeping to my vacation plan I did not think of myself as a William Tell, but I knowingly refused to accept a level of subservience I had not worked for. I did not think the Chief Minister was a Hermann Gessler either. It is those who wanted me to cancel my vacation who were pre-empting his wishes, perhaps not wishing to annoy an important politician close to the Indian Prime Minister, perhaps not wishing to take any risks with their own future prospects. In their calculations, my dignity, much less my convenience figured nowhere. If I did not take care of these nobody else would.
But I have yet to tell my longest New York story.