Personality in Its Place

Tanvi Madan

Later this summer, US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit India for the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Before and during his visit, many observers in India will likely try to assess whether Kerry is “pro-” or “anti-” India. This is not surprising. In the narrative of US-India relations, there has always been a hall of fame and a hall of shame. Praise was heaped upon “heroes” — such as President John F. Kennedy and US ambassadors to India Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Blackwill — for being pro-India. President Richard Nixon and secretaries of state John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger found themselves on the anti-India “villains” list. More recently, Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel have been labelled anti-India or pro-Pakistan. However, this focus on whether policymakers are pro- or anti-India is limiting at best and harmful at worst. It can lead to an exaggerated view of the extent of the impact of one individual’s personal bias and obscure more complex motivations and drivers of policymaking.

Conclusions about policymakers’ biases have often been based on one or more statements made or one or two high-profile decisions taken. It is crucial, however, to focus on individuals’ track records. Take Nixon. He has often been tagged as anti-India. In the early-to-mid 1950s, when he was vice-president, Nixon indeed had little patience for non-alignment and was a proponent of military aid to Pakistan. By 1957, however, he was internally arguing for greater economic aid to India. He made his view public too, asserting that “what happens in India… could be as important or could be even more important in the long run, than what happens in the negotiations with regard to Berlin.”

In 1967, long before people were talking about the next century being an Asian century, Nixon also laid out the importance of Asia and how that continent’s future would largely be shaped by four “giants” — China, India, Japan and the US. Writing at a time when there was much pessimism in the US about India and the Indira Gandhi government, Nixon noted with sympathy that India’s “present leaders at least are trying… in exceedingly difficult circumstances” to move forward and doing so in a democratic context. Once in power, his administration did make the infamous one-time exception to provide military assistance to Pakistan, but he vetoed recommendations for a larger, more sustained package.

The pro/ anti-India narrative also does little to explain change. Why, in 1972-73, did Nixon and Kissinger work to rebuild the relationship with an India they disliked? Or, why did policy towards India change over the course of the Clinton administration with a similar set of policymakers? The narrative also assumes individuals’ views stem from an inherent dislike or love for India, rather than circumstances or worldviews. It does not often recognise that individuals can change — and that Indian words and actions can shape views of India. Biographers of Indira Gandhi proclaim, often approvingly, that she treated Nixon badly in 1967, without any consideration of whether that treatment might have affected his views of India and her.

Furthermore, the narrative cannot explain how policymakers can make some statements and decisions that are “pro” India and others that are not. As Rajeev Sharma has noted in the case of Kerry, and Dhruva Jaishankar on Hagel, one can identify instances when these supposedly “not-India-friendly” individuals have supported legislation helpful to India — the India-US nuclear deal, for example.

In narratives of India-US relations, these simplistic conclusions are not restricted to depictions of US policymakers. Nehru is often portrayed as anti-US, even though he was perhaps the first to use the term “natural partners” to describe the bilateral relationship. Others insist on identifying Indira Gandhi as pro-Soviet, ignoring instances such as her resisting for two years her advisers’ entreaties to sign an India-Soviet treaty.

This is not to say that personalities don’t matter. They do, but their role needs to be put in context. They can facilitate cooperation or exacerbate conflict. They can help determine the policy option chosen. Personal relationships, too, matter. However, personalities are not the only factor — or often the primary one — determining policy and consideration of their role should go beyond discussions of the pro- or anti-Indianness of particular policymakers.

The pro/ anti India narrative often neglects to consider whether and how much the “pro” or “anti” policymaker influences policy broadly, and policy towards in India in particular. Cabinet members’ or ambassadors’ roles and influence are not the same as those of presidents. Moreover, it sometimes overlooks actors involved in shaping policy and the policy debate outside the White House and state department.

Instead of focusing on whether key policymakers are anti- or pro-India, it would be more worthwhile to assess which individuals are making policy; their role and influence in the policymaking process, especially relative to other policymakers, and their proximity to the president; and the nature of interaction between policymakers. Furthermore, it is crucial to analyse the worldviews of key actors; their perception of US interests and preferred strategy for achieving them; whether they see a role for India in that strategy and, if they do, is it as potential spoiler or supporter. Finally, it is essential to think about what India can do to build enough constituencies for the relationship in the US and ensure its own importance so that bilateral relations do not depend on — and are not thought to revolve around — one or two individuals.