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.

By the summer of 1950, the Indian food situation had deteriorated. This time around the government conveyed to Washington India's requirement in clear terms. Nehru's sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then ambassador to the US, handed the formal request for 2 million tons of wheat aid to the secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Truman was cautious, however, and sent an aide to the Capitol Hill to sound out Congressional opinion. Senate foreign relations committee chairman Tom Connally told the luckless official: "You will have one hell of a time getting this thing through Congress." As Truman knew, there were reasons for India's unpopularity with many Congressmen. These included India's policy of nonalignment, its friendly relations with China, its peace-making role in Korea and American legislators' astonishing ignorance concerning India. Nevertheless, Truman decided to send the food aid legislation to Congress. He enlisted the former Republican president Herbert Hoover's support for the Bill. Even so, resistance to the measure was stiff. More obdurate than the Senate was the House of Representatives, which, at one stage, postponed the consideration of the issue.

What kind of pride and prejudice this country was up against is best illustrated by an interview Vijayalashmi Pandit had with Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House and a legendary figure on the Hill at that time, from which she returned in a towering rage. It had gone something like this: "Why don't you buy wheat from Pakistan which has wheat in surplus? The only reason you don't is because Hindu India wants to do down Muslim Pakistan," Rayburn said to the ambassador. She tried to control her temper as best she could and said testily that India was not Hindu India, and that it had "more Muslims than Muslim Pakistan."

Rayburn: "Oh, you have Muslims in India! Honey, why didn't you say so earlier?"

Ambassador: "Sam, I have been saying this for two years, ever since I came here, but you don't hear and you don't understand." Whereupon Rayburn's tone suddenly changed, and he said: "No, no, now that I know, now you will have no trouble. If they give you any more trouble, honey, you just tell me." (Source: B.K. Nehru, then minister for economic affairs at the Indian embassy in Washington.)

This, combined with carping criticism and foot-dragging by the US Congress, annoyed Nehru so much that he burst out: "We would be unworthy of the high responsibilities with which we have been charged if we bartered our country's self-respect or freedom of action, even for something we need badly." Unsurprisingly, the opponents of the Food Aid Bill in Washington were miffed. Some days later the prime minister spoke of food aid in positive terms. He also declared that India would prefer the wheat as a loan not as a gift. US Congressional nerves thus soothed, the India Emergency Food Aid Bill to loan India two million tons of wheat worth $190 million was eventually passed. On June 15, 1951 President Truman signed it into law, with Vijayalakshmi Pandit sitting by his side while everyone else stood.

However, when the American wheat arrived on Indian shores, the US did not get any thanks or public relations dividend. There had been too much acrimony and bad blood during Congressional hearings. Nehru thought it necessary to explain that despite the "best efforts" of the US administration, "there has been a feeling of resentment in India regarding the long delays and obstructionist tactics of some in the American Congress".

What particularly irked the Americans was the Indian applause for a much smaller shipment of the Soviet wheat that had arrived much earlier.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

Please read our terms of use before posting comments
TERMS OF USE: The views expressed in comments published on indianexpress.com are those of the comment writer's alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of The Indian Express Group or its staff. Comments are automatically posted live; however, indianexpress.com reserves the right to take it down at any time. We also reserve the right not to publish comments that are abusive, obscene, inflammatory, derogatory or defamatory.