Swallowing the humiliation

Many of us still have hurtful memories of the mid-'60s when, after two successive years of savage drought, India desperately needed American wheat under the US Public Law 480 on rupee payment and at relatively low prices because the country had no foreign exchange to buy food in the world market. Indira Gandhi had just become prime minister and chose to go to Washington on an official visit. Lyndon Johnson gave her a gushing welcome and responded to the food problem confronting her effusively, promising as many as 10 million tons of PL480 wheat. However, at an early stage the transaction turned sour.

Infuriated by India's criticism of American bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong in the course of the Vietnam War, the irascible Texan put food shipments on such a tight leash that India literally lived from ship to mouth. With every morsel we swallowed a little humiliation. When told that the Indians were saying exactly the same thing as the UN Secretary-General and the Pope were, Johnson had retorted: "The Pope and the Secretary-General do not need our wheat." Many in India started demanding that we should say no to American wheat. Sensibly, Indira Gandhi said nothing. Privately, she told some confidants: "If food imports stop, these ladies and gentlemen won't suffer. Only the poor would starve."

All this was, in several ways, a replay of the dismal drama over the first US wheat loan to this country that had unfolded a decade and half earlier and generated much ill-will. Since few remember what came to pass then, the story is worth telling.

In 1949 the Indian food situation was as difficult as in the '60s and the foreign exchange position even worse. In November that year Nehru made his first visit to the US amidst a tremendous welcome. During his talks with Harry Truman he did mention the scarcity of food in India. Truman's response was positive. But there were bureaucratic obstructions, resistance in the US Congress, procedural delays and other difficulties, including the American attempt to barter wheat for strategic materials. There could therefore be no agreement even though there was a glut of wheat in America. India said that the US was "ungracious" and "stingy". What annoyed New Delhi the most was that the US had tried to use food aid as a "policy lever". For their part, American officials complained that the Indian government had not "followed up" on Nehru's vague request to Truman. This, however, was not the end of the story.

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