By signing the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement, or CISMOA, which the Americans generously renamed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) to reflect its India-specific nature, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has achieved what all his predecessors yearned for.
The impression is that the United States has been courting an indifferent or even hostile India all these years. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As the veteran diplomat, Eric Gonsalves, told American reporters in 1981: “We are prepared to be as pro-Western as you will permit us to be. But every time we try to make an opening, you kick us in the teeth”.
To take just one instance, an unasked India embarrassed the Americans by offering every facility that Pakistan didn’t after 9/11 exactly 17 years ago. It was much the same on the eve of Operation Desert Storm. Nor was Atal Behari Vajpayee’s fatuous description of India and the US as “natural allies” the only reason that prompted Ram Jethmalani to write to him before President Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000, suggesting a mutual defence treaty. The eminent lawyer argued that substantial advantages would flow if New Delhi were a stop on what he called the Washington-London-Jerusalem-Tokyo democratic axis.
What’s new is that with Pakistan on the edge of crisis, the US has no choice. No doubt Donald Trump’s businessman’s eye on India’s building boom is a contributory factor. But with Europe at sixes and sevens and China rearing formidably in the Asia-Pacific, the main reason is strategic.
Asaf Ali, whom Jawaharlal Nehru sent to Washington before Independence as India’s first ambassador, suffered the first rebuff, failing to convince George C. Marshall, then US secretary of state, that a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation with a politically stable and economically viable India “would be a bastion for the free world against the great northern neighbour which now casts its shadow over two continents”. Marshall didn’t reciprocate Nehru’s hope that India should “align with the United States somewhat and build up (its) economic and military strength”.
Four other Indians pursued the American dream. Early in 1948, Col. Brij Mohan Kaul, India’s first military attaché in Washington and destined to lead the Army to disaster at Bomdila in 1962, asked US defence secretary Louis Johnson, a former American representative in British India, for B-25 bombers and other arms, and proposed long-term defence collaboration and exchange of information.
Backing the request, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, secretary-general of the new external affairs ministry who had represented British India in Washington, assured the acting secretary of state, Robert A. Lovett, that India would always be with America in defending the “free world” against Soviet Communism. It was India’s press, not government, that was anti-American. The $363 million India spent on its Army was not enough to resist aggression “from the north”. Bajpai wanted to send a military mission to Washington.
Next, Inder Singh Chopra, the embassy’s first secretary, supported by the new military attaché, Sandhurst-trained Brig. Dilip Chaudhuri, wanted ammunition “to be used exclusively in the Indian military training programme” and sought US reactions to a longer shopping list. Chopra told Joseph A. Sparks, director of the office of South Asian affairs, that the US “could count absolutely on having India at its side”, but India wanted to know “where it stood” on military cooperation. He suggested the American defence attaches in New Delhi would be given all the information they sought on a reciprocal basis as part of a long-term military agreement. The response was a brush-off. Kaul did not get his bombers. The Army department’s Kenneth C. Royall did not turn up for his appointment with Bajpai.
Though the US military thought Chopra’s request for ammunition “completely reasonable”, the state department objected it “would result in an immediate and commensurate increase in India’s military potential” vis-à-vis Pakistan’s.
India’s “attempt to establish a formal blueprint of relations” was rejected with the retort there were no comprehensive discussions on overall policy even with Canada. The state department proudly noted it had classified India “upwards to the category of countries receiving ‘restricted’ US military information” so that the Indians could be fobbed off “with relatively harmless but somewhat impressive military information ...”
The reason for this deviousness was that India was of “negligible positive strategic importance” while Pakistan occupied “one of the most strategic areas in the world” and could provide “a staging area for forces engaged in the defence or recapture of Middle East oil areas”. Pakistan was ideal for “ideological and intelligence penetration” of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet industrial heartland could be bombed from Pakistani cities.
A five-day conference in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) of senior American officials, including the CIA, regretted in February-March 1951 that it was impossible to overlook India’s huge military potential, raw materials, industrial output, manpower and communications facilities. Hence the determination to “bring about an early buildup of Pakistan ground forces assisted by the provision of military equipment to Pakistan” which was “willing to make a significant contribution to the defence of the Middle East, provided its fear of India (was) removed”. Arguing that “the existing disparity in military strength between the two dominions has its own dangers”, the US cannily decided on British advice that Pakistan’s rearmament “should not be directed too obviously against India”. It should be camouflaged “under some sort of blanket assurance to countries of the Near East generally”.
The past needn’t weigh too heavily upon us. But it can’t be ignored either. It shows that the US wouldn’t have obliged India if it didn’t suit current American national interests. Interests determine alliances. To adapt Palmerston’s famous adage, there are no eternal allies or permanent enemies in diplomacy.