Personality in its place

John Kerry's 'pro-' or 'anti-' India tilt may not determine bilateral ties

Later this summer, US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit India for the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Before and during his visit, many observers in India will likely try to assess whether Kerry is "pro-" or "anti-" India. This is not surprising. In the narrative of US-India relations, there has always been a hall of fame and a hall of shame. Praise was heaped upon "heroes" — such as President John F. Kennedy and US ambassadors to India Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Blackwill — for being pro-India. President Richard Nixon and secretaries of state John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger found themselves on the anti-India "villains" list. More recently, Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel have been labelled anti-India or pro-Pakistan. However, this focus on whether policymakers are pro- or anti-India is limiting at best and harmful at worst. It can lead to an exaggerated view of the extent of the impact of one individual's personal bias and obscure more complex motivations and drivers of policymaking.

Conclusions about policymakers' biases have often been based on one or more statements made or one or two high-profile decisions taken. It is crucial, however, to focus on individuals' track records. Take Nixon. He has often been tagged as anti-India. In the early-to-mid 1950s, when he was vice-president, Nixon indeed had little patience for non-alignment and was a proponent of military aid to Pakistan. By 1957, however, he was internally arguing for greater economic aid to India. He made his view public too, asserting that "what happens in India... could be as important or could be even more important in the long run, than what happens in the negotiations with regard to Berlin."

In 1967, long before people were talking about the next century being an Asian century, Nixon also laid out the importance of Asia and how that continent's future would largely be shaped by four "giants" — China, India, Japan and the US. Writing at a time when there was much pessimism in the US about India and the Indira Gandhi government, Nixon noted with sympathy that India's "present leaders at least are trying... in exceedingly difficult circumstances" to move forward and doing so in a democratic context. Once in power, his administration did make the infamous one-time exception to provide military assistance to Pakistan, but he vetoed recommendations for a larger, more sustained package.

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