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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Déjà View | A new hope

The past list of Republic Day parade chief guests make for interesting, and somewhat perplexing, reading

Much is being made out of the choice of Barack Obama as chief guest at the Republic Day Parade. Will this finally help one of the most under-leveraged bilateral relationships on the planet to finally blossom? We shall have to wait and see. The past list of parade chief guests make for interesting, and somewhat perplexing, reading.

Representatives from France, Bhutan and Mauritius have made the most appearances. China was invited once in 1958, while Pakistan has chief guest-ed twice: in 1955 and 1965. And yet we’ve never invited Bangladesh or, sadder still, the United Arab Emirates. Pity.

The 1965 invitation extended to Pakistani food and agriculture minister Rana Abdul Hamid was particularly poorly timed. Border skirmishes had already erupted in early January that year. A few months after that parade the two countries went to war. 50 years later we’ve invited the Americans. Gulp.

This year also marks half a century since a particularly interesting period in Indian history and India’s relationship with Anglo-American strategic interests.

On 6 January 1964, during the Congress party’s annual conference in Bhubaneswar, Jawaharlal Nehru suffered a stroke. The exact nature or extent of the illness was not made public. But Indian officials later secretly informed the British government that the blood supply to part of Nehru’s brain had been briefly failed. The US government responded immediately by doing two things.

They first offered the ailing prime minister medical help. Secondly the state department asked specialists to prepare their own review of Nehru’s condition.

“‘Given Nehru’s history,’ the State Department was advised, ‘a recurrence of Thrombosis is likely. This might be in a day, week or decade. He [Nehru] is walking on eggs.’ Preparing for the worst, State Department officers began the macabre task of drafting condolence messages from Lyndon Johnson to Radhakrishnan, Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit." Thus writes Paul M.McGarr in his August 2013 book The Cold War in South Asia. McGarr then goes on to tell a story of intense Anglo-American interest in Nehru’s successor. It is a story that is fascinating and raises eyebrows.

For many years before Nehru’s stroke in 1964, the US and British governments had been deeply worried about how India would cope in the post-Nehru phase. As I hinted in a previous column, there was widespread fear that India’s experiment with democracy would collapse after Nehru had passed from the scene. And even if the democratic system prevailed and a peaceful transition of power took place, the Anglo-American establishment was keen to see the right kind of leader take Nehru’s place.

Readers may be tempted to think that the “right" leader in this case would be someone who was pro-Western in outlook, supported private enterprise, resisted communist tendencies and who would slowly dilute some of Nehru’s socialist legacies. In other words, Morarji Desai. But in fact, McGarr writes, the US and British had other priorities. They wanted someone pragmatic and moderate who could hold India together and maintain peace in the region. And their candidate of choice was Lal Bahadur Shastri, a leader who is perhaps admired more than he is understood.

McGarr: “As a skilled conciliator, Shastri was expected to minimise the fissiparous, communal, and economic risks associated with a transfer of power, and preside over ‘a more reasonable Indian Government, even on Kashmir’." At the same time, British and US officials were encouraged by indications that Shastri would welcome closer and more harmonious relations between India and the West. With “Nehru on his last legs", Robert Komer assured Lyndon Johnson in April 1964, “...Shastri—the heir apparent, looks good from our viewpoint".

(Kromer was a US security advisor who was later involved, with controversy, in the Vietnam War.)

As Nehru’s health and leadership declined, especially in the period following the Indo-China war, the Anglo-Americans watched with exasperation. They hoped Nehru would hand over power to Shastri and step away. (Ironically, McGarr writes, the Soviets also wanted this. The KGB secretly worked on a propaganda campaign to prop up Shastri’s candidature.)

Thus after Nehru’s death in May 1964, both the US and UK governments immediately began to put pressure on president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to ensure Shastri’s succession. At a meeting in Rashtrapathi Bhavan, Radhakrishnan assured Lord Mountbatten of this. The Congress would pick Shastri, the president said, and Britain could expect “a new India, more forthcoming and friendly and less difficult".

Nevertheless, McGarr writes, the US embassy and UK high commission in Delhi both used contacts within the Congress to observe and perhaps even influence proceedings.

Shastri took office in June 1964. And while he appeared to bring a new warmth to India’s relations with the West, the small, quiet man showed unexpected steel in his interactions. Soon there was a realization that they had perhaps backed the wrong candidate: “The characters and leadership styles of India’s first and second prime minister’s differed markedly. The substance of their politics, as Anglo-American policymakers belatedly came to realize, did not."

Shastri himself died of a heart-attack in 1966. But by then all hopes of a post-Nehruvian rapprochement between India and the West had evaporated. 50 years later a new hope springs again.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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