Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947, by Rudra Chaudhuri, Hurst, RRP£30/$29.95
American relations with New Delhi were plunged into crisis in December by the arrest of an Indian consular official in New York for alleged visa fraud. Devyani Khobragade was accused of lying to US officials about the salary of an Indian maid who accompanied her on her posting.
The diplomat’s arrest caused fury among Indian elites, particularly after it emerged that she was subjected to a humiliating strip-search during her brief custody. As it sought to contain the damage, the US appeared caught off guard by the ferocity of India’s reaction. But it should not have been.
As detailed in Rudra Chaudhuri’s compelling study of the fraught relations between the world’s largest democracies, New Delhi has always been acutely sensitive to any hint of subservience or subordination in its relations with the US despite vast disparities in wealth and power.
While Indian media typically depict their country as victim of an arrogant, bullying superpower – as during the recent furore over Ms Khobragade’s treatment, Chaudhuri’s meticulously researched book suggests New Delhi has, in reality, often got its own way in critical diplomatic dealings with Washington over six decades.
Tapping newly available Indian archival materials and interviews with central diplomatic actors, Chaudhuri offers a fresh perspective on New Delhi’s efforts to reconcile its ideals of “non-alignment” with its pressing material needs – a balancing act that has evolved as circumstances have changed.
Non-alignment, as described by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence prime minister, was about avoiding entanglement in “other people’s feuds and imperialistic rivalries” and retaining strategic freedom. “I am eager to avoid any dependence on the USA,” he wrote to his sister in 1948. “I do not like the way they are going and they have a method of trying to get their pound’s flesh in the shape of vested interests and the like.”
The book details how in India’s hours of deepest need – facing potential famine after independence in 1947 and during the devastating 1962 border war with China – Nehru fiercely resisted any attempts to compromise its sovereignty and constraints on its future decision-making, even as he sought US help. Following the demoralising defeat by China – and fearing another imminent attack, New Delhi saw off US attempts to link the provision of military aid to resolution of India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.
Today, the nation remains equally determined to chart its own course, as US officials discovered during tough negotiations over the groundbreaking 2008 deal that ended New Delhi’s decades-old status as a nuclear pariah. In what some called “the deal of the century”, India won the right to engage in nuclear commerce with the US without major concessions on its weapons programme – much to the chagrin of the nuclear non-proliferation lobby.
Indian negotiators made clear they would “walk away” from rather than concede critical points on its programme. “Negotiating with India became a matter of negotiating with a nation convinced of the exceptionality of its own imperatives,” writes Chaudhuri.
In the “for or against us” atmosphere of the early cold war, the country’s refusal to take sides was seen as “irritating and pretentious”, a sign of “moral confusion” or a veil for anti-Americanism. Nehru found a more sympathetic interlocutor in President John Kennedy, who was impressed with India’s democracy, and more tolerant of its standoffish approach.
Eventually, President George W Bush and his team came to see India as a “natural partner” for the US, a bullish approach that underpinned their push to strengthen relations and complete the nuclear deal.
Yet while New Delhi and Washington have improved their relations and mutual understanding, Chaudhuri predicts Indo-US relations will remain turbulent. “India will never be an ally of the US,” he contends.
Instead, he suggests, the “fires of argument” will burn between them as they thrash out often radically divergent views on contemporary issues, finding common ground on some, and remaining far apart on others. President Barack Obama discovered while still just a candidate how touchy New Delhi remains about any hint of outside interference in its dispute over Kashmir. Still, he also suggests that, despite recent heat, the improvements in relations are too strong to be easily undone.
This lucid and persuasive book offers a nuanced guide to the tortuous course of relations between two great democracies – which are unlikely to become more predictable or straightforward any time soon.
The writer is the FT’s South Asia correspondent