India has always been neurotic about being drawn into America’s wars. That danger may seem more real now with the August 29 signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. But despite the outraged Congress and the Left protests, the LEMOA is not exactly new. If Narendra Modi plays his cards well, it can still strengthen this country instead of turning it into another US satellite like Pakistan, the Philippines and South Korea used to be.
Modi is not the only Indian prime minister to court the US with his flattering boasts about Barack Obama. A.B.Vajpayee famously called India and the US “natural allies” without acknowledging he had taken the phrase from Lieutenant-General Sunit Francis (Roddy) Rodrigues, the former army chief, who held extensive talks with Major-General Claude M. (Mick) Kicklighter, commander of the Honolulu-based US Pacific army, whose jurisdiction extended to India. Manmohan Singh even more famously told George W. Bush “The people of India deeply love you”.
Ironically, there were probably more direct contacts under Indian leaders who appeared to distance themselves from the US. According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the American ambassador, despite harping on “the foreign hand” – her shorthand for the US Central Intelligence Agency — Indira Gandhi twice took American money for election expenses. She was also willing to invest the rupee equivalent of $2.2 billion – the price of PL 480 wheat – in higher education, until advisers like P.N. Haksar pointed out it would mortgage the future to the Americans. She agreed to set up American listening devices in the Himalayas to spy on China.
Jawaharlal Nehru who was most scathing about the US pre-empted Modi’s LEMOA by 69 years. As member of the viceroy’s council for external affairs and Commonwealth relations in 1947, Nehru signed with Henry F. Grady, America’s first ambassador to independent India, an executive agreement on transit privileges for military aircraft. Although concealed from the Indian public, the treaty is listed in the US State Department’s Treaties and other International Acts, Series 2416. So is information regarding revisions to the agreement on the eve of Nehru’s 1949 visit to Harry S. Truman, in 1955 when anti-American sentiment was rampant in this country, and again in the altered climate after the 1962 Sino-Indian war when desperation lent urgency to India’s diplomatic pleadings.
Apart from overflights, halts and refuelling, the treaty allowed American maintenance crews to spend up to two weeks at Indian airports attending their warplanes. It permitted the US embassy to station two military aircraft permanently at Palam airport for the use of its naval and air attaches, and exempted weekly Military Air Transport System flights from landing and housing charges. Some privileges were trimmed in 1955 when India also refused the New York Times permission to publish here, following it up with a ban on foreign-owned publications. But they were restored and even expanded after 1962 in the hope of American arms.
If none of this is admitted publicly, it’s because we remain as schizophrenic as William B. Saxbe, US ambassador in the Seventies, found us. “When I call on cabinet ministers, the president, or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the United States and how well they’re doing and how well they like things,” Saxbe mused. “The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the United States as a totally different kind of country.”
Newspaper readers were therefore stunned in January 1990 to learn that Indian airports were servicing the US air force while the American-led coalition was bombing Baghdad. Publicly, India was so ostentatiously paranoiac then about the US that defence personnel were not allowed to attend seminars where an American uniform might be glimpsed. The real but unreported story was not that two prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, had allowed the US overflight, landing and refuelling facilities but that neither request nor permission was necessary under the Nehru-Grady pact. Congressmen who accuse Modi of breaching India’s “strategic military neutrality” obviously don’t know their history.
Secrecy breeds contradictions. Even while V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar were conceding US requests during the Gulf War, the defence ministry’s report regretted that Singapore’s offer of base facilities would “bring international strategic rivalries closer” to India’s shores and “affect the region’s security environment adversely.” There was more in this vein about American war-mongering while the peace-loving Soviets and Vietnamese were pulling out of conflict zones.
India was at a crossroads in 1990-1991 because of the end of the Cold War and the détente between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. India is again at a crossroads because of China’s rising might, the so-called “nine-dash line” outlining its claims in the South China Sea, the fears of South-east Asian governments, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the dispute. Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, Chinese action to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and prevent the United Nations from banning the Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar, as well as reports of another defence agreement between China and a Pakistan that lies behind much of the violence that afflicts this country more directly affect India’s stability. The question is how to respond without further imperilling security through provocative action that gives China and Pakistan, India’s two main challenges, more excuse for mischief. Before thinking of expanding LEMOA into a full-fledged defence pact with the US, we should pause to consider two things.
First, contrary to public knowledge, India has tried time and again to draw the US into a security relationship ever since Asaf Ali, our first ambassador, tried to persuade George C. Marshall, secretary of state, that a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation would enable India to stand up to “the great northern neighbour which now casts its shadow over two continents.”
Second, countries that have thrown their lot wholly into the American camp have only alienated their own people, estranged their immediate neighbours and exposed the weaknesses of their rulers. Shah Reza Pahlevi’s Iran offers a good example. As the Philippines learnt when China seized Mischief Reef, the US does not intervene on behalf of its allies unless its own national interests are directly threatened. The presidential election looming ahead makes the US even less dependable.
Nevertheless, an open relationship which allows both sides publicly to debate rights and obligations is welcome. Vajpayee’s government signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2002. With LEMOA out of the way, two other pacts – the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation – may have to be signed to facilitate the strategic partnership.
But ultimately India will have to fight its own battles against the poverty and ignorance that foster subversion and terrorism. US support for sanctions might – or might not – restrain the Pakistani military, but China cannot be controlled. And even without foreign mischief, the running sore of Kashmir will not heal on its own.