Essay

Nehru & VOA

Print edition : July 26, 2013

November 1961: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the White House garden. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

B. Gopala Reddy was made a scapegoat in the VOA episode. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The murky episode of the botched Voice of America agreement reveals not only the nature of decision-making in a feudal set-up in a democratic government but the flawed character of the feudal chief.

ON July 9, 2013, it will be 50 years since India signed an agreement with the United States for sharing the facilities of a powerful, 1,000 kW medium wave radio transmitter to counter China’s propaganda in South-East Asia. India would build and operate a radio broadcasting station near Calcutta (now Kolkata), while the U.S. would supply the transmitter and ancillary equipment. India would own in perpetuity the station and all the equipment supplied by the U.S., but it would make available three hours of prime time daily for the relay of Voice of America (VOA) programmes to South-East Asia.

The terms of the agreement are interesting. The U.S. government would use the time “for the sole purpose of increasing understanding between the United States and the countries of South-East Asia”; the contents of VOA programmes “will take into account the friendly relations which exist between the Government of India and other countries”; and a schedule of programmes would be shown to Indian officials in advance—texts would be provided “for the purpose of any review desired”. Further, “The Government of India agrees to pay to the Unites States government one rupee only as purchase price for the entire equipment.”

These provisions are pertinent:

“VI. The Government of India will grant the United States government the full use of the available transmitting facilities for three hours daily for relaying only Voice of America programmes to South-East Asia in South-East Asian languages only… in blocks of one hour each, alternating with All India Radio in broadcasting during the two morning and four evening hours. The United States government will pay the Government of India one rupee only per annum for this service;

“VII. The agreement would be in force for five years, it could be renewed, or a new agreement made; and in case of an impasse the U.S. had the right to repurchase all items for one rupee; and

“X. Implementation of the agreement would commence as soon as funds were made available to the United States Information Agency by the U.S. Congress.”

To this day, half a century later, the official text of this agreement is not available. A Right to Information (RTI) application would be well worth the small trouble. Hopefully, it will meet a better fate than Kuldip Nayar’s application, under the RTI, for disclosure of the Henderson-Brooks Report on the 1962 military debacle did at the hands of the Central Information Commission then headed by Wajahat Habibullah.

Since the funding was to be sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, the U.S. insisted on ample publicity. Instead, a brief announcement was made on July 9, 1963, which was reported in the press the next day. All hell broke loose. On July 17, 1963, the Indian Cabinet reversed the decision. It took seven months to unravel the deal. Denis Kux, who was then working on the India Desk in the State Department, recalled that “senior officials were particularly annoyed that the Indians went back on an agreement they had previously made” (Denix Kux, Estranged Democracies: India and the United States of America 1941-1991, SAGE, page 225). He ascribed the volte-face to India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “When opposition to the accord developed in Indian media and political circles, Nehru decided to cancel the agreement on grounds that it had not been properly staffed within the Indian government. Washington was annoyed by the Indian flip-flop, but could do little except fume” (ibid, page 215).

India’s initiative

On two points there can be no controversy. The initiative for such an arrangement came from India and it was made in November 1962 before China announced a ceasefire on the 21st of that month. A week earlier, on November 13, the American Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his diary: “The Indians are asking us for help on presenting their side of the dispute to the world…. Maybe we should lease them some time on the VOA. I am not impressed by this sort of thing, but everyone else is” ( Ambassador’s Journal, Hamish Hamilton, page 472).

No Minister, let alone a civil servant, could possibly have dared to moot that proposal; only Nehru could have. In a definitive statement in Parliament on August 14, 1963, Nehru revealed: “A decision was taken in November 1962 to explore the possibility of obtaining high powered radio transmitters on reasonable terms from countries where such transmitters were available.” The decision was authorised by the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet, but there is no evidence of dissent, or even substantive discussion, on what was viewed as a technical matter. There were only about a dozen transmitters of that type in use throughout the world. The “technical” matter became a “political” one only after the accord was signed.

One consequence of the reversal was the assignment to the doghouse of the none-too-competent Minister for Information and Broadcasting, B. Gopala Reddy. He was among those who quit ministerial posts under the Kamaraj Plan, which was activated on August 24, 1963, when Nehru delivered the sentence before the Congress Working Committee. Central Ministers (Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and S.K. Patil, to name some) and Chief Ministers (K. Kamaraj, Biju Patnaik, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and some others) were put to pasture. It was a slick operation.

Biographer’s version

It was left to Nehru’s biographer, Michael Brecher, to reveal in 1974 the details of why, how, and by whom the VOA deal was scuttled (“India’s Decision on the Voice of America: A Study in Irresolution” , Asian Survey, July 1974). Some writers and Nehru’s official biographer exonerated Nehru of blame. Political opponents found it yet another ground on which to denigrate Nehru. Brecher’s disclosures are based largely on an interview with William H. Weatherbee, who was then Counsellor for Public Affairs at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. The interview was conducted in December 1964, when, apparently, Weatherbee provided Brecher with the text of the agreement, from which he quoted liberally in his article.

It is impossible to exaggerate the privileged position Brecher had come to enjoy in New Delhi after his biography of Nehru was published in 1969. In 1968 appeared his book India and World Politics: Krishna Menon’s View of the World. Krishna Menon’s equally waspish adversary on the Right was even more generous to Brecher. Morarji Desai “made available his personal correspondence with Nehru for research purposes” and allowed him “to work through it with care for a week at his home”. Brecher used the material in his book Succession in India: A Study in Decision-Making, published in 1966. He unhesitatingly opined in it that under the Kamaraj Plan B. Gopala Reddy “was the obvious scapegoat for Nehru’s error in the Voice of America fiasco earlier that summer” (emphasis added, throughout).

Brecher’s article cites copiously from editorials in leading dailies and columns by senior journalists, besides. They illustrate the political clime and explain to a large extent the reason for the volte-face. The crucial questions, however, are: Who did the running—Prime Minister Nehru or the ineffectual Minister Gopala Reddy? Did the Minister perform according to the script written by the Prime Minister or did he act on “a frolic of his own”, an expression used in the law of torts to characterise an agent who goes astray. The inherent probabilities must not be overlooked in any analysis of the record. Gopala Reddy had no clout, political or other. Would he have dared to act on his own in a matter of such sensitivity?

Brecher records: “Few persons were involved in the November 1962 decision to seek high-powered radio transmitters or in its substantive corollary, in July 1963, to sign the VOA agreement: the Secretary of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), Nawab Singh; his Minister, B. Gopala Reddy; the Foreign Secretary, M.J. Desai; Prime Minister Nehru; and some technical specialists, notably, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio. The Cabinet authorised the first decision proforma. It was not even aware of the second.”

These persons, especially the controversial M.J. Desai who was close to Nehru, could not have operated on their own. If inquiries were made of the U.S. embassy as early as in March 1963, following Nehru’s initial resolve in November 1962, the move could not have been made behind the Prime Minister’s back. The parleys were not rushed, either. The agreement was signed four months later in July.

Brecher adds: “The approach began innocuously, with an informal expression by Indian officials to Weatherbee and to Loomis of the Voice of America, who happened to be in Delhi, that ‘we must do something to strengthen our propaganda. Can’t the United States help us’? As Nehru told Parliament, that approach was made after ‘preliminary enquiries… showed that the only transmitter of this kind readily available was with the Voice of America’…

“In May a semi-formal inquiry to Weatherbee was made by the Secretary of the I&B Ministry and AIR specialists. Serious negotiations were conducted throughout June by two teams of civil servants and technicians: on the U.S. side, Weatherbee, a government lawyer, a VOA executive, and an engineer; on the Indian side, Nawab Singh, the Secretary of the I&B Ministry, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio, and two other experts. Altogether there were about a dozen sessions, with reference to higher authority by both sides in cases of deadlock.

“The bargaining process began with two drafts. The U.S. offered to build the transmitter, pay much of the cost, and share its operation. India insisted that the U.S. sell it the transmitter for one rupee, in return for which the VOA would receive three hours of prime radio time daily to relay its programmes to South-East Asia —but in languages of that region only. The U.S. yielded to India’s demand in large measure, as the text of the agreement revealed.

“The ultimate decision to sign the agreement was made by Nehru. According to Weatherbee, the draft was sent to the Prime Minister, who wrote: ‘I concur, Jawaharlal Nehru.’ Nehru himself acknowledged his role, to Parliament in August: ‘I was consulted on two or three occasions but did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage. The matter was, however, briefly mentioned to me before the agreement was signed and, in that context, I must assume responsibility.’” Note: that (a) Weatherbee had obviously seen Nehru’s written endorsement and (b) the parleys were not rushed through.

Nehru hedged a bit while admitting his mistake. “I never read it as a whole. Some parts of it, some odd points, were referred to me for my opinion, and I once or twice wrote a note about it… [but] the matter was not considered by me as a whole with all the papers…. That was my fault that I did not go more deeply into it.” He did not blame anyone but himself, albeit with Nehruvian qualifications.

His biographer Sarvepalli Gopal’s version flatly contradicts Nehru’s statements. He wrote: “Nehru also allowed his government to be persuaded to sign an agreement whereby, in return for the United States providing a high-powered radio transmitter, the Voice of America would be permitted to relay its broadcasts from India to South-East Asia for three hours every day. When the announcement of this agreement was received with sharp criticism in India, Nehru looked, for the first time, at the full text of the agreement and advised the Cabinet, which was also considering the matter for the first time, to reject the agreement as being counter to India’s basic policies.” ( Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 3, page 254). The words “allowed his government to be persuaded” are disingenuous to a degree.

Ironically, the footnote at the end of this very passage cites Brecher’s article and Nehru’s statement in Parliament on August 14, 1963. Such tortuous apologias abound in the book, besides Gopal’s consistent denigration of any who had crossed his father, S. Radhakrishnan’s path—C. Rajagopalachari; Maulana Azad and Krishna Menon, to mention a few. Even Zakir Hussain was not spared, though his only fault was that he succeeded Radhakrishnan as President. The biography relies almost exclusively on Nehru’s papers and used the assignment to settle scores with his controversial father’s critics.

Gopal suggests that the flaw lay in the document and Nehru having “looked for the first time at the full text” decided to cancel the deal. Nehru himself admitted that (a) he was consulted on two or three occasions but he “did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage”—whatever that implies; (b) the matter was briefly mentioned to him “ before the agreement was signed”; (c) “Some parts of it, some odd points, were referred to me for my opinion and I once or twice wrote a note about it.” Those notes, now 50 years old, should be published. Obviously, he was consulted on the details of the deal; not on the political aspects or ones with political implications, for none could dare to instruct him on them and he surely needed no such instruction either. The policy decisions were entirely his to make.

Nehru’s claim that he “did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage” though “the matter was briefly mentioned” to him before the agreement was signed was ambiguous. Was the matter the document or its political consequences? In the very same speech he claimed, “I never read it as a whole”; he had written notes on it, but “the matter was not considered by me as a whole with all the papers”.

This was not the first time Nehru took shelter behind such an oversight, inviting tacitly his critics’ condonation. Earlier in the same year on January 22, Nehru claimed that he had not seen China’s Maps III and V, which were drafted by him or the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), referred to in the Clarifications by the Colombo Powers to their Proposals. They defined the Line of Actual Control. No attorney dealing with the sale of even a small plot of land would feel himself free to make such an excuse.

It is most unlikely that Nehru found in the text of the document something unacceptable which the U.S. would have refused to delete. The basic idea incontrovertibly was his. The talks proceeded unhurriedly for four months, from March to July 1963. A lot happened in between. On March 6, Gopala Reddy himself informed Parliament’s Consultative Committee on Information & Broadcasting of the possibility of acquiring the transmitter from the U.S. The VOA also mentioned that month the possibility of their offering the transmitter. Did these disclosures remain confined to a select few?

Brecher writes: “The VOA issue came before India’s Cabinet—for the first time—on July 17. Nehru reportedly led off with the remark, ‘I think it would be a mistake to go ahead with the agreement.’ Few, if any, demurred. And the Cabinet concurred that the Government of India should not implement the agreement unless the U.S. gave up its shared time. The two decisive inputs to that nullifying decision were, clearly, opposition from the press and the Left, generally, and criticism from Moscow.

“The decision was leaked at once: ‘India May Seek Revision of VOA Pact,’ reported The Times of India on the 18th, and, with greater certainty, by the Hindustan Times and Patriot a day later. Nehru himself confirmed the hasty reversal decision, though not the precise date: ‘Immediately thereafter’ (the July 9 signing of the agreement), he told Parliament, ‘it became clear that this arrangement was not in consonance with our general policy’. He also alluded to one of the stimuli which, ‘if further pursued… make Indo-U.S. relations a subject of controversy inside India.’

“The process of implementing that decision began at once and continued for seven months. Nehru met with the Minister of Information and Broadcasting on the 19th and then let it be known that Gopala Reddy had violated the Government Rules of Business, according to which policy decisions required prior Cabinet approval. The same day he replied to a letter criticising the agreement from CPI Member of Parliament, Mrs Renu Chakravarty: ‘We are considering this matter. We do not want anything to be done which goes against our policy.’” Whose duty was it, in those circumstances, to refer the matter to the Cabinet, the Prime Minister’s or the Minister’s? The deal was Nehru’s brainchild, after all. Clearly, it was not any clause in the agreement but the very basis of the deal which was found wrong and that, too, in response to outside pressure.

Brecher traces the subsequent and tortuous course of events. “There was an inconclusive meeting of the 15-member Congress parliamentary party executive Committee on the 6th of August: sharply conflicting views were reported, some stressing honour—in fulfilling a commitment—others the violation of non-alignment. The next day Nehru told the Committee: ‘The matter was not processed in the normal way, and the agreement was signed without the Cabinet having considered it… hence it was decided to get the agreement varied [that is, not cancelled]. At present negotiations on this basis are taking place.’ On the 11th he reportedly told opposition leaders that: (a) neither he nor M.J. Desai had been apprised of the deal’s full implications; (b) the negotiations had been handled by senior officials in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, without the Minister’s full knowledge; (c) the Foreign Secretary had been abroad when the agreement was concluded; (d) normal procedures had not been followed in that the issue had not even received the scrutiny of the Defence Committee, let alone of the Cabinet; and (e) that he, Nehru, had been informed about it in bits and pieces.”

Lawyers take up alternative and sometimes inconsistent pleas. This was nit-picking of a cheap kind. Gopala Reddy and the officials knew that the Prime Minister was keen on having the transmitter. He was kept informed and wrote notes more than once. He trotted out excuses only after public clamour that the deal violated his “ policy” of non-alignment. As Nehru himself admitted in Parliament, “Immediately thereafter [the signing of the agreement] it became clear that this arrangement was not in consonance with our general policy.” Is it not amazing that the realisation dawned on Nehru, architect of non-alignment, only after the clamour once the agreement was signed. It had eluded his awareness from November 1962 until July 10, 1963. Did he need a clerk to educate him that the deal violated non-alignment, S. Mulgaonkar, editor of Hindustan Times, asked angrily. His contemporary, Prem Bhatia, criticised “a lack of courage to stand by a publicised decision” ( Indian Express, July 19, 1963).

Some compromise with non-alignment was inherent in the initial decision itself in November to seek the American transmitter, a compromise which Nehru and the Cabinet had then endorsed. But, then, in an interview to the NBC, telecast on December 4, 1962, Nehru had declared: “There is no non-alignment vis-a-vis China. There is no Panchsheel vis-a-vis China”. Having swallowed the camel of American planes, which he pleadingly sought from President Kennedy, Nehru could hardly strain at the gnat of a radio transmitter—until public criticism, to which he was highly sensitive, impelled him to perform a somersault at some damage to his credibility.

Disclosure dispelled doubt

All doubt on the issue of Nehru’s awareness of the terms of the agreement is dispelled thanks to a disclosure by his senior Cabinet colleague to a scholar. Morarji Desai told Prof. J. Bandyopadhyaya: “The deal had actually gone through when, in face of parliamentary and public criticism, Nehru denied all knowledge of it. According to several members of Nehru’s Cabinet, including Morarji Desai, as well as important political leaders, Nehru had in fact personally signified his approval of the deal on the relevant file, put up to him by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, over the signatures of the Deputy Minister, Shyam Lal, and the Minister (of I & B), Gopala Reddy, and even personally corrected the draft agreement before approving it, without informing the Cabinet.” The interview was held on December 1, 1969 ( The Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Allied, 1970, revised in 1980, pages 184-185). This confirms Weatherbee’s version and falsifies Gopal’s. The assessment, variously attributed to Lewis Fisher and others, is perfectly correct—Nehru was vastly overestimated as a statesman and vastly underestimated as a politician.

Nehru himself had “ corrected the draft agreement, before approving it, without informing the Cabinet”. He might well have thought that since the Cabinet had approved of such a deal in November 1962, another reference was not necessary. But was it honest to pin the blame on the hapless Gopala Reddy? Nehru could not have been ignorant of the fact that the agreement was about to be signed on July 9. The procedural flaws were raised later by one who never had any patience with matters procedural. This murky episode reveals not only the nature of decision-making in a feudal set-up in a democratic government but the flawed character of the feudal chief. Pablo Neruda, who met Nehru in 1950, accurately summed up his character as one “accustomed to giving orders but lacked the strength of a leader” ( Memoirs, Penguin 1978, page 202).

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