July 05, 2020
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A Lengthy Courtship

We in India lack contemporary history of the digestible, Datta-Ray kind. This book will sit well on our shelves.

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A Lengthy Courtship
A Lengthy Courtship
Waiting For America: India And The US In The New Millennium
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
HarperCollins Pages: 471; Rs 595
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray’s huge book on Indo-US relations since the early ’80s joins the shelf-load of books on how the world’s largest democracies deal with each other. Datta-Ray is one of India’s most respected journalists. An elegant writer with an eye for story-telling and a no-nonsense analytical pen, he traces the course of Indo-US ties from the time Indira Gandhi opened them in 1982.

The title Waiting for America refers to Datta-Ray’s basic argument which is that India has been and is, even now, waiting for the US to tilt to New Delhi diplomatically, particularly in relation to Islamabad, and to craft a richer, more thorough-going partnership with India economically, technologically and strategically.

According to Datta-Ray, every Indian leader, contrary to popular perception, has courted the US since Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and A.B. Vajpayee all recognised that India’s stance towards the US had to change. Economics was at the heart of the change: by 1982, India desperately required American investment, technology and consumer goods to increase growth rates and satisfy the demands of a burgeoning middle class. Strategic imperatives too were important: India needed US military technology as well as its influence in dealing with the perennial problem of Pakistan.

Datta-Ray tells his story at various levels—individual, institutional, intervention of private groups and interests (particularly on the US side) and, of course, the interplay of national interests. The story proceeds chronologically through prime ministerships, presidencies and ambassadorships. For those who like their public affairs reading to be accessible and entertaining, Datta-Ray does not disappoint. The book is rich in anecdotes, sharply-etched portraits and humorous asides.

Having said that, Waiting for America is not a book you will read at one go. It is rather big; at 434 pages of written text, it is as big as Dennis Kux’s scholarly tome on India-US relations, Estranged Democracies. A strong editor should probably have done some pruning—many of the incidents and episodes recounted here are entertaining, but perhaps they are a tad too many. To mix metaphors: there is a risk of losing the woods for the trees.

This is by no means fatal to the enterprise, which on its own terms succeeds. Waiting for America will certainly be of great interest to journalists, academics, diplomats and politicians interested in disentangling Indo-US relations over two turbulent decades and poking and prying into the various cusps, dead-ends, and turning points—Indira Gandhi and Ronald Reagan at Cancun in 1982, Rajiv Gandhi’s state visit in 1985, Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms from 1991 onwards, nuclear diplomacy during the Clinton years and the growing strategic engagement since 1999.

For the cognoscenti, there are some intriguing nuggets. For instance, when Rajiv went to Moscow in 1985 on his way back from the US he carried a message on Afghanistan for the Soviets from Reagan. In 1986, an Indian AN-32 transport plane disappeared in the vicinity of US planes that were ghosting the Indians. There is an India-US treaty going back to the 1940s which would allow the US to use Indian air facilities.

We in India lack contemporary history of the digestible, Datta-Ray kind. This book will sit well on our shelves. We would do well to ponder the implications of Datta-Ray’s analysis: Indo-US ties will be stilted as long as Americans see Pakistan as a strategic asset; India’s strongest asset is its economy, hobbled by its domestic politics.

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