Hesitations of history: What if India overcame them half a century earlier?

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In his landmark speech to a joint session of US Congress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the India-US relationship had overcome the hesitations of history. Meanwhile, former foreign secretary M K Rasgotra has provided a tantalising glimpse into what might have been if those hesitations of history had been overcome, say, half a century earlier. Among other things, India would not have needed to beat desperately at the doors of the Nuclear Suppliers Group today.

According to Rasgotra, US President John F Kennedy offered to help India detonate a nuclear device much before China did in 1964. But Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru refused the offer. Rasgotra’s claim looks to me an entirely credible one.

Kennedy was one of the most pro-India of US presidents who sought to empower democratic India vis-à-vis Maoist China, which he saw as a grave danger to the free world (the US seeks to assist India’s rise for similar strategic reasons today, to ensure China doesn’t call all the shots in Asia and to keep sea lanes open).

Nehru, on the other hand, was enough of a pacifist to be vehemently against nuclear tests and nuclear weapons. He had fought the British to win Indian independence, and the UK and US were close allies (although Roosevelt did strongly intercede with Churchill to push Indian independence).

Nehru was also imbued with the pan-Asianism that was part and parcel of Indian nationalism – which saw Asian countries, particularly China, in a favourable light vis-à-vis ‘imperialist’ Western powers. For all those reasons, Nehru would certainly have rejected nuclear assistance from Kennedy if it had been offered.

Only Nehru’s sentimental view of China can account for perhaps his craziest foreign policy move: the big powers offered India permanent membership of the UN Security Council virtually on a platter, but Nehru declined it in favour of China. That may have been the primal act of Indian diffidence which set the tone for its foreign policy.

But history would have been different if Nehru had accepted Kennedy’s assistance and India detonated a nuclear device before October 1962. That would not only have broken with the psychology of diffidence; it would have deterred the Chinese attack and the 1962 war. The thrashing India took in that war psyched it into a permanent appeasement/ avoidance syndrome with respect to China, which has impaired India-China relations since.

The 1962 pummelling also encouraged Pakistan’s military adventurism against India in 1965, in an attempt to seize Kashmir. If the 1962 war with China hadn’t happened, the 1965 war with Pakistan could have been headed off as well. Kashmir would have seemed unattainable to Pakistan and eventually ceased to be an issue between the two countries.

Sceptical that India’s possession of a nuclear device would have deterred Maoist China? In that case, consider another counter-factual. In April 1960 Zhou Enlai visited New Delhi as Mao’s emissary and obliquely proposed an east-west swap. If India recognised China’s claim over the Aksai Chin, China was willing to concede Indian claims in the eastern Himalayas. India would have lost nothing from such a settlement; Aksai Chin is an uninhabited, mountainous area where, as Nehru said, “not a blade of grass grows”.

Nehru hesitated to accept Zhou’s proposal. Relations between the two countries soured and eventually fell off the precipice. But what if Nehru had accepted and the India-China boundary settled on a pragmatic basis? In that case, again, the 1962 war would have been forestalled.

India could have used American technology, capital and access to markets to build itself up, in the days when America was still generous with these things (perhaps due to Cold War reasons; Donald Trump’s crabby outlook wasn’t the norm then). With the border issue settled, relations with China would have been far better and India would have been on the right side of both the US and China.

What happened, instead, was that Pakistan managed to play both the US and China to diplomatically outmanoeuvre India for a long time. That ended with Pakistan’s military adventurism during the 1999 Kargil war, which convinced the US (though not China) that the Pakistani posture is a fundamentally dangerous and irresponsible one. However, Pakistan has strategically used 9/11 to claw back some US favour.

Asian countries with close relationships to the US opened up their economies in the 1970s, enabling them to boom. Had India done the same it would have remained abreast with China, instead of falling behind till it’s become, today, only a tiny blip in Beijing’s rear view mirror. Eventually, Pakistan too would have given up its existential enmity with India and thrown in its hat to join the South Asian boom.

A clarification is in order. Nehru was one of India’s greatest 20th century statesmen and it’s worth nobody’s while demeaning him (least of all by anyone who deems himself a ‘patriot’). Nehru – more than anybody else – is responsible for institutionalising democracy in India when he could easily have been a dictator. That is why Kennedy admired him; that is why we have democracy in India today.

Given India’s size and diversity dictatorship is a recipe for disintegration; democracy is the only guarantee of a stable polity. If India had disintegrated, none of the above counter-factuals could have materialised. Nehru’s achievement stands out and dwarfs all his failures.

Source: Times of India (blog)

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