Home / Opinion / Columns /  The baffling resurgence of anti-Americanism in India

In May 1959, John F. Kennedy gave a major foreign policy speech in which he argued that “no struggle in the world today deserves more of our time and attention than that… between India and China." The junior senator for Massachusetts, 18 months away from defeating Richard Nixon for the American presidency, said there was a “subtle but very real battle" between India that stood for “human dignity and individual freedom" and “Red China, which represents ruthless denial of human rights."

Three years later, President Kennedy backed up that rhetoric when the Indian army was reeling from a Chinese onslaught in the 1962 war. As Bruce Riedel writes in his superb book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, the president’s daily briefs from October and November 1962, declassified six years ago, show that alongside the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was closely following the Sino-Indian war. “For two months these two issues dominated the daily coverage of top secret information JFK was looking at," Riedel writes. Responding to a request from Jawaharlal Nehru, the Kennedy administration appeared ready to send squadrons of American bombers to fight on India’s behalf.

Preparing for war, Kennedy flew a White House delegation to New Delhi. “An aircraft carrier was dispatched to sail to Madras, but was later recalled when the crisis eased." China’s abrupt ceasefire was in Riedel’s and Nehru’s assessment at least partly because of the speed of the White House response. A footnote to history is that the delegation of two dozen officials arrived in India on the US holiday of Thanksgiving Day. Then ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, in his fond memoir of his time in India, joked that the delegation was so large that he contemplated hiring a church for the meeting with Nehru.

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a wide spectrum of Indian commentators, from belligerent TV anchors to pulp-fiction writers, have shown a rare unanimity in supporting Russia’s claims to be acting in defence of its ‘sphere of influence’. An ode to Russian support for India during the 1971 war amid threats from the Nixon administration is invariably recited. American double standards, well known in its conduct of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are highlighted while Soviet/Russian brutality in Afghanistan and in supporting the Assad regime in Syria is overlooked, as are the targeted killings of many Russian journalists.

This seemingly selective amnesia airbrushes away the strong US support for India’s economic reforms from 1991 and extraordinary camaraderie that led to the US-India nuclear deal. On state visits to India, presidents ranging from the charming Bill Clinton to the more reserved Barack Obama appeared to bond with Indians and Indian leaders: Clinton, visibly impressed by a woman sarpanch in Rajasthan, said she would win an election anywhere, while a decade later Michelle Obama danced with schoolgirls to Rang de Basanti. And, who can forget President Obama’s repeated use of “guru" while referring to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a global climate summit?

This antipathy towards the US among our commentariat is thus baffling, given that the 4 million-strong Indian diaspora in the US punch well above their weight, as our business press breathlessly reminds us. From the late Sonny Mehta at Knopf to Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Sundar Pichai at Alphabet and Google, Indians have been revamping their respective industries and their global companies. Since 1991, American companies have led foreign direct investment in India. In the early 1990s, General Electric’s then chief executive Jack Welch seemed like an unpaid cheerleader for India; Fortune and Forbes featured huge photos of made-in-Bengaluru GE CT scanners being exported to France. A cover story I had written for Fortune on India’s reforms in 1992 began with the cliché that once socialist India was “rolling out its best Kashmiri carpets" for foreign investors. I unsuccessfully tried to have that lame sentence deleted as the article went to press. Even then I knew that India would always be the land of dual personalities (proudly socialist/ brazenly oligarchic) and it was more a case of our infamous bureaucracy tying up multinationals in knots. But, my editors in New York were too enthused about India’s turnaround to temper glowing headlines.

There is something of our multi-faceted personality in the widely-held view that Russia’s sphere of influence justifies attacking Ukraine. Hopefully, Beijing will not extrapolate this support and feel encouraged to attack Taiwan, cutting off our supplies from the global leader in semiconductors, or prove even more aggressive on our borders.

Inconveniently for those of this view, Russia is hated by countries the Soviet Union ruled in its heyday. Among the man-made famines and purges inflicted by the Soviet Union, there is the haunting story of Warsaw in August 1944. Polish patriots had risen against German occupiers. Joseph Stalin not only refused to help the Poles, he ignored US appeals to allow Allied planes to refuel at Ukrainian bases. In two months, the Polish Home Army was decimated and 225,000 civilians killed. Half a million Poles were sent to concentration camps. Stalin had apparently waited long enough for the German elite corps to eliminate any potential Polish opposition to Soviet rule when the war was over. If Poles have been welcoming Ukrainian refugees by the hundreds of thousands in recent weeks, this grim episode of history perhaps explains why.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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