Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 – Rudra Chaudhuri
Rudra Chaudhuri’s recent history on Indo-US relations Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 is a book that is as ambitious as it is provocative. In it, Chaudhuri, embarks on a concerted myth-busting journey by revisiting some of India’s critical bilateral junctures with the United States over the course of sixty years with an intent to distill a clear and perceptive strategy underpinning its relations and approach toward the United States, the leading power of the international system since 1945. By doing so, Chaudhuri also attempts to debunk many of the lingering tropes characterising Indian foreign policy since 1947. Chief among these is India’s vaunted indigenous approach to managing foreign relations – ‘Non-Alignment.’ Through a forensic analysis of the archival materials supplemented ably by an array of primary and secondary sources and news clippings – Chaudhuri argues that India’s approach to the United States is characterised and influenced by a melding of ideas (‘who we are’) and material interests. The approach and conclusions make for an exhilarating and highly revealing, if not completely acceptable, read.
To make his case, Chaudhuri zeroes in on a series of diplomatic encounters with the United States. These are organised into three sections that are also deftly titled. The first on ’Negotiating Non-alignment’ looks at the early Nehru years and how Non-alignment as a political strategy and ideational construct was crafted and its relevance during India’s appeals for economic assistance following independence and during India’s tryst as a mediator with the Eisenhower administration during the Korean War. Both these junctures effectively laid the diplomatic infrastructure between both nations that has endured. The second section entitled ‘Negotiating Change’ deals with three crises – 1962 China war that purportedly dented the concept of nonalignment; subsequent negotiations with Pakistan over Kashmir and the 1971 Indo-Bangladesh War. These chapters deal with a rapidly shifting international climate that show how a chastened India maintained its dogged diplomatic approach of balancing ideas and interests following its ignominious defeat against China. And the final section, ‘Negotiating Engagement’ covers India’s contemporary engagement with the US on two important issues – Iraq War in 2003 and Indo-US Nuclear Deal, events that as many scholars claim witnessed a ‘new India’ that had shed its cold war shibboleths and was finally ready to engage as a major power. But these proclamations and declarations, Chaudhuri argues, do not withstand empirical scrutiny; instead, Indian behaviour allude to a clear and traceable continuity insofar as India’s foreign policy is concerned. The emphasis on ideas and interests and its complex intermeshing shaped New Delhi’s thinking when debating whether to send troops to Iraq and during the highly controversial, contested and laborious civil nuclear deal negotiations.
As a thesis alone, the ideas and interests argument does not sound altogether novel. Nation states, as Charles De Gaulle once quipped, only have interests, no friends. And nations are generally understood to be governed by some normative or ideational influences as they attempt to accomplish their objectives within the international system. But what makes Chaudhuri’s argument novel and arresting is the actor in play – India and the legacy of Indian foreign policy, compounded by the literature covering it, that has disconcertingly clouded its diplomatic behaviour through a overbearing sense of idealpolitik, long wedded to Nehruvian consensus and channeled through principles of non-alignment. Burdening this trope is another one that claimed Indian foreign policy a la non-alignment was a red herring and a scaffold used to mask and advance a realist oriented foreign policy. In this context and backdrop, the book’s thesis is path-breaking since it questions and aims to delegitimise long-held views and understandings by empirically uncovering and substantiating Indian positions and those that ran its foreign policy, in this case – relations with Washington.
Some of these unsubstantiated tropes run through and influence the literature on Indo-US relations. As Chaudhuri demonstrates, earlier accounts of the relationship, notably Dennis Kux’s book characterised India and the United States as ‘estranged democracies’, whose relationship had long been victim to the exigencies of the cold war and the ideological proclivities of both nations that pitted them at opposite ends. Strobe Talbott followed a similar argument by presenting the relationship as one that had crossed a ‘difficult half century’ before setting forth to describe his diplomatic encounters with Jaswant Singh in the 1990s. Chaudhuri’s efforts are clearly aimed to set the record straight against these accounts which he claims severely ‘misreads the history of the relationship’ between both nations. The truth, as he argues, is more complex. Contrary to existing interpretations, Chaudhuri’s picture depicts two democracies that, from the outset, frustrate and test one another but not at the expense of the larger relationship that as time progressed, proved to be more resilient and capable of withstanding minor irritants (la affaire Khobragade).
The revisionist interpretation also seeks to challenge and contest long-held myths in Indian foreign policy, notably that of non-alignment and what it constituted. As Chaudhuri makes clear, non-alignment was not much of a nebulous construct as some critics have charged. It had solid roots in the core notion of non-dependence and this impulse has persisted and influenced India’s approach with the US since 1947. Moreover, he challenges contemporary accounts of Indian foreign policy that point to non-alignment’s demise following a fundamental structural transformation has taken place over the past thirty years since liberalisation took hold. Though sympathetic to broader structural shifts, Chaudhuri dismisses these and other culturalist arguments pertaining to the conduct of Indian foreign policy.
Chaudhuri’s work is firmly anchored within the new historical turn in the study of Indian international relations that, according to Kanti Bajpai, revisits and unpacks some of India’s pivotal diplomatic moments to lay bare how these affected and continue to affect policies and choices today. Such scholarship tends to be inductive and interpretative and light on theory but strong on its descriptive understanding of critical junctures. What these historical accounts and interpretations also convey is that is prudent to be more cautious over some of independent India’s founding foreign policy principles that are heavily influenced by ideas of independence and sovereignty, greatly shaped by legacies of colonialism and partition. Scholars like Srinath Raghavan and Chaudhuri argue that we must guard against essentialising these beliefs and instead adopt a more measured attitude when examining their relevance.
In every sense provocative, Chaudhuri’s work aims to inform and introspect. Despite its many positives, there is one rather negligible blemish. Nowhere in the book is there a definition of what a crisis is. Gleaning from the cases that are under focus, it is implicitly clear that periods that precede or follow a military conflict are understood as moments of crisis. If clearly defined early on and well explained as to why these particular moments were chosen, the reader would have gained more perspective. But this does not detract from the deft and solid research and analysis that accords this book considerable esteem.