An American envoy

Published : Dec 03, 2010 00:00 IST

A fascinating picture of Indian policies in the early 1970s and of American blinkers.

IT was a life of high achievement won against heavy odds. As a young man in New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan struggled with poverty and was devastated by the disappearance of his father. He shined shoes, tended bar, worked the piers as a longshoreman, and stole rides by clinging spreadeagled to the back of the cross town bus to get to high school in Harlem. He briefly attended City College of New York before joining the Navy as a teenager during the Second World War, returned to complete an undergraduate degree from Tufts, and studied in London. He rose to become perhaps the most influential public intellectual of his time.

He served under John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, was a commander in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society, an enabler under Richard Nixon and an envoy to the United Nations under Gerald Ford. He was a professor at Harvard well before becoming a successful politician. In four terms in the Senate working with (or against) Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush (senior) and Bill Clinton he made an impact in the areas of welfare reform, public works, transportation projects, international law, congressional prerogatives in the Cold War, and the challenge to the cult of secrecy in Washington.

He retired from the Senate in 2000 and died in 2003 just as bipartisanship, which he ardently supported, was on the decline. He is remembered in India as the Ambassador who sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a cable, which he leaked to The New York Times, asking him not to brush aside Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's complaints against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was responsible for the settlement of the PL 480 funds. He served in New Delhi from February 1973 until early 1975; during this period Pokhran-I was staged and Leonid Brezhnev and Kissinger visited India to receive starkly contrasting receptions. Vietnam was in the headlines throughout.

Moynihan's concerns were wide and deep. His letters reflect them. They are edited by Steven R. Weisman, who was The New York Times correspondent in New Delhi for some time. His Introduction is most informative and does justice to Moynihan both as a scholar and as an activist who defied labels and was easily misunderstood. His Memorandum to President Kennedy on October 22, 1963, on organised crime is very relevant to us, especially in Mumbai. It is a phenomenon of prohibition which competes with organised politics and remains an almost wholly unexamined phenomenon. He realised that the blacks were a grievously injured people who in fair and equal competition will by and large lose out.

The most, but not the only, interesting pages are the ones covering his tenure in India. I sense this obsession with America, and its presumed higher standard, in the Prime Minister [Indira Gandhi]. The negative side comes forth more readily; but the preoccupation is also there. She cannot open her mouth without talking about or alluding to the United States. In her case, ambivalence is overlaid with Brahmin hauteur and that peculiar amalgam of fear and disdain which the upper-class British Left acquired for America during the 1930s. She is primarily a political animal, and the carry-over of this leftist, anti-colonial' political culture into present day India is such that anti-American remarks become an all-purpose means of affirming one's loyalty to the socialist and egalitarian principles of the Indian Constitution, a kind of a loyalty oath which wealthy Brahmins doubtless find it politic to subscribe to from time to time.

And then there is the residue of the demi-raj. To begin with, Indians are clearly influenced by the Buddhist view which holds that gratitude, if it exists, should be felt by he who gives and not he who receives, since the latter has been the cause of good action, which to the full advantage of the former, will inevitably by the iron law of Karma bring its own reward'... one's next incarnation. The Indians have such good brains: if only they didn't have such bad ideas. They are committed to a socialism that cannot work. With each successive failure of the economy, they respond so as to hasten the next cluster of failures. The heart of the problem is discipline, or, if you will, incentives. They will not accept the discipline of the free market, although they have a potentially superb entrepreneurial class.

His own blinkers stand out prominently. He seriously believed that the U.S. fought in Vietnam to save India from going communist. His obsession with India's gratitude, rather than lack of it, speaks a lot for his outlook. He wrote to Kennedy: Already, Communists are everywhere in the Indian government, holding some of the most important posts for the long run, as for example the Education Ministry. Hence our diplomacy must be directed to preventing this latter development. In the meantime, the short-term economic interests of India require increasingly close and correct relations with the American economy. They hope this needful relationship will diminish with time, but it may not. Accordingly India will seek to minimise its political differences with the United States. For its part the United States should (and probably will) cooperate in this process in order to retain some political influence for the purpose of minimising Indian dependence on Russia. Nurul Hasan was Education Minister then. He saw an Indira Gandhi surrounded by Etonions. He had, presumably, Jagjivan Ram, L.N. Mishra, Y.B. Chavan and Swaran Singh in mind. He got along best with her Principal Secretary P.N. Dhar.

My first private meeting with the Prime Minister. As successful as any such meetings are going to be now for a very long while. I gave Dhar a proposed agenda two weeks ago with no difficulty, but not the least effort on her part to be anything but correct. I began by telling of Henry's suggestion that she send an emissary over for a periodic tour d'horizon; an arrangement we had with the British, the Chinese, and the Soviets. I would assume that any other chief of government in the world would automatically and perhaps enthusiastically accept such an invitation. The Prime Minister explained that if someone were to go it would raise questions in Delhi as to why. I outlined our proposal on P.L. 480 rupees. Our holdings, preserve and prospective come to $6.04 billion. We would settle for $1 billion. She said take it up with the Minister of Finance. I presented an Aide Memoire on the occasion of the end after twenty one years of the American technical assistance program. We had helped bring about the green revolution, eradicate malaria, build thirty three colleges and universities. India had asked that the program be terminated. We would also turn over the AID staff house, a complete high rise apartment complex built for the technicians. She thanked me for the apartment buildings. I said I would give a party on the occasion of the transfer and hoped she might come. She didn't say.

His flamboyance and her antipathies clashed. A pleasant meeting with the Prime Minister. I convey the President's appreciation for the easy Indian response to Prime Minister (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto's (of Pakistan) visit (nod, smile), and commence my first serious effort to make contact with her. Dr. Kissinger had asked me to return to the United States. It was a difficult decision, as no matter what one did it was the wrong thing. In the end the President had let me off the hook by saying he was himself of two minds, and so I returned to India. Nod. Smile. Our relations clearly were improving: I was sure that in twenty years they would be much better. I was concerned, however, that they were improving in proportion that they were diminishing. We could have the most equable relations on the same basis that each of us has with Ecuador, which is to say scarcely any relations. That is why I was grateful for what I had taken to be her personal intervention to restore the flow of American scholars to India, however diminished it might be. Nod. Smile. I had been distressed just yesterday to receive a letter reporting that after fifty two years, the Rockefeller Foundation was closing its offices in India. Nod. Smile. I hoped for more closer economic relations, but I could see that they pose insuperable problems for the Democratic political system of India. Nod. Smile.

But the Ambassador was astute enough to discern, as Kissinger had done earlier, that the lady would be nobody's stooge. Russia is the only great or near great power which the Indian government feels is concerned about and protective of Indian interests. To have the leader of that nation come down here to state forcefully and in public on television that dtente with the United States is the greatest single force for peace in the world, and get the Prime Minister to say so in a communiqu is one of those historic posts' you occasionally call attention to.

At the same time, the Indians, as best we can tell, kept their distance in military and diplomatic matters generally. No bases; no collective security pacts. As for the massive aid' which today's papers announce, we will believe it when we see it. And I, for one, would welcome it if it appeared. If I have any opinion about this country at all, it is that it has been a moderate economic failure, but a distinct political success. There is a relation between these two seemingly contradictory conditions. Political success the continuation and the strengthening of a viable, resilient, democratic political order has been achieved by adherence to ideals of social justice and modes of social control which simply make for very slow economic growth. There is a sense in which India, not wholly unwitting, has taken vows of poverty.

Some disclosures bear recalling: Early in my call on Dhar (Mrs. Gandhi's secretary) he asked if I knew a Mr. ****? I knew of him. Would I mind if Mr. ***** dropped in whilst we were chatting? I would not. Whereupon he went to the red phone on his desk and in due time the director of Indian intelligence appeared. He had learned I was to be in the building. Having heard so many pleasant things about me he had dared to hope I would not be too much inconvenienced if he were to stop by just for the briefest chat. He had been wondering if Mr. Colby [CIA Director William Colby] would consider a visit to India. The two services worked together so well, and on so many important matters. The training Indians had received in the United States was of such quality. The Director of CIA would be so welcome. Under wraps, of course. Frontier? Oh, yes. They had picked up the trail. Toronto. Bonn. What is one to do? I returned to the Embassy and wrote (Lawrence) Eagleburger (of the State Department) that my proposal that we pull CIA out of here was inoperative'. They want us. Possibly they even want more of us.

Kissinger's meeting with the Prime Minister was a dialogue of the deaf. She began saying she assumed he wished to talk about the nuclear explosion. He said yes, he wanted to talk about the bomb. India had one now its interest is now to see that others do not get one.

Turning to CIA he said that the United States supported the Congress Party. (A fact she must know, in the past having taken our money. He would know that she would know that he would know this.) Then, if I surmise correctly, that peculiar exchange that can only occur among the elect. He did not disavow any hostile intentions. He merely stated that he had not taken any hostile acts. There were no operations authorised against India, he said. He chaired the committee that gives such authorisations. He had not done so. If she found any American misbehaving, she had only to send him a personal letter.

Moynihan was very sensitive to India's concerns about military supplies to Pakistan and about Diego Garcia. Kissinger's entire outlook and idiom were different. Since some Indians spread the red carpet for him when he comes visiting now, though he is a washout, it is worth remembering what he thought of India in those times. Read this: We require India to beg. They are using the word in regard to our country. The word is not used with regard to any other country, but only with regard to India.'

The door from the forward cabin (of the plane) opens. The Secretary of State. Cable in hand. The bitch!' What is an ambassador to say? What I say is She will piss on your grave, Henry. There is nothing to be done about her. We come and we go: she remains.' The door closes. Disaster. The Secretary of State all grim. In five minutes it opens again. I know what I will say at the airport. I will say Beggars can't be choosers.' It's going to be all right after all. He is superb at the airport.

The blame lay not all on one side. Indira Gandhi's entourage did not leave her alone to follow her own instincts such as they were until 1982. Even then they continued to encourage her to ignore overtures of China and Pakistan. The book provides a fascinating picture of our policies in those days and America's blinkers, no less.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment