Jawaharlal Nehru and John Kennedy. Photo: Muralirvarma
BARACK Obama and Manmohan Singh are pretty happy men these days. You notice that soft placing of the American president's hand on the Indian prime minister's back, at every available opportunity, and you know how cheerfully they have warmed to each other.
Both men are truly educated beings, intellectuals of a kind you do not come by in these progressively banal times. It surely helps when two individuals, both in office and both in power, can relate to each other. But that happenstance is not always easy to come by. One only needs to observe the history of India-US relations to know.
Jawaharlal Nehru and John F. Kennedy did not have an easy time with each other. As JFK prepared to meet India's first prime minister on a trip to Delhi as a young Congressman in 1951, he was warned about Nehru's attention span when it came to dealing with people he found tedious. Nehru would look up at the ceiling, the future president was told, which would be a cue for Kennedy to end the conversation. And that is precisely the way things happened.
A decade later, it was Nehru visiting President Kennedy at the White House. JFK's rise in politics did not appear to change Nehru's opinion of the former. At a banquet, he spent much of his time talking to Jacqueline Kennedy. Somehow he did not spot the intellectual spark he thought should be in a powerful politician.
Nehru's daughter had a clearly fraught relationship with American presidents. On her first trip to Washington as a young prime minister in 1966, she found President Lyndon Johnson rather condescending and arrogant. India, after all, was poor, with regional and other difficulties straining at every fibre of the nation.
Indira Gandhi returned to Delhi, promising to herself that never again would she allow any world leader look down on India. And that was when she went forth into the job of turning places like Rajasthan into vast expanses of green. India would have its own granary to feed its people. She was as good as her word.
Five years later, it was a supremely confident Indira Gandhi who faced down President Richard Nixon. In November 1971, as the Bangladesh war assumed critical dimensions, Nixon did the rude thing of keeping the Indian leader waiting at the White House for long minutes beyond the scheduled time of their meeting. He was piqued by Mrs. Gandhi's disdainful treatment of his friend, who was none other than Pakistan's Yahya Khan. The prime minister took it all coolly. The next day, it was Nixon's turn to call on Indira Gandhi. She made him wait for the same period of time that she had waited to see him.
With Morarji Desai, President Jimmy Carter had a rather comfortable relationship. They hit it off well. The Indian leader displayed none of the cantankerous shifts of mood he had by then become known for. At the National Press Club in Washington, where Indian officials accompanying Desai on his visit expected him to enlighten the American media on the results of his meeting with the US leader, the prime minister went off on a different direction altogether.
All those curious American newsmen seemed to be more interested in Desai's by then well-known urine therapy for good health. And, presto! They asked him about it. Morarji Desai was only too happy to oblige. And so, for the better part of an hour, he merrily told those Americans how wonderful it was to go back to one's urine as a way of ensuring one's long and productive life. The talks at the White House had slipped into the background.