Howdy Modi: Undoing the disasters of Rowdy Nehru

Howdy Modi: Undoing the disasters of Rowdy Nehru

Howdy Modi is not just a buzzword – it is symbolic of the synergy in India-US ties. Being democracies and opposed to the sterile and soul-killing doctrine of communism, they should have been natural allies from the start, but instead the two nations had an adversarial relationship for decades. This was primarily due to the disastrous rule of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru from 1947 to 1964.

While the United States has its flaws, the foremost being its hubris as a globocop, it is no worse than communist China which has the mindset of a penny-pinching, destabilising land grabber or the suicidal self-destructiveness of Russia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s view is that America has much to offer India but a real breakthrough will come when the painful memories of the past are wiped clean. For that to happen, he was to first pull down Nehru’s legacy – the bad blood of the Cold War.

Friendly overtures

America has been the wealthiest country in the world for nearly 200 years; India was the wealthiest country in the world for 1,700 of the past 2,000 years. The Americans were well aware of India’s potential and strongly supported the country during the freedom struggle against British rule. Shortly after Indian independence in 1947, the United States invited Nehru on a state visit, but perhaps influenced by his British friends, the prime minister declined.

The following year, the Americans extended another invitation and this time, Nehru agreed to undertake a three-week tour of the US in October 1949. The trip was a fiasco from the get go. Coming after weeks of speculation and rising expectations, the visit proved to be a great disappointment for nearly all concerned, writes American author and foreign policy historian Dennis Merrill. “Awkward incidents and gaffes plagued the tour. The occasional flaunting of American wealth particularly offended Nehru. At one luncheon with businessmen in New York, he took offence when the man seated next to him pointed around the table and boasted that the combined party represented a net worth of $20 billion.” (1)

The episode is a pointer to a defining Nehru trait – hypocrisy. How could India’s richest politician feel offended by the mere mention of wealth? After all, his wealth was so great that there is a story (perhaps apocryphal) that he got his daily wear clothes dry cleaned from Paris. At any rate, wasn’t it America’s great wealth and power that led him to visit the country in the first place?

American author Stephen P. Cohen has an explanation for this bizarre hypocrisy: “Many Indian leaders had been educated in Britain or in British oriented institutions in India and had little personal or intellectual interest in America. If anything, they had absorbed leftist British views that the United States was the epitome of capitalism and they shared a prejudice that Americans lacked the cultural refinements of the British. Only a few Indian leaders of these years had ever been to the United States – not including Nehru – and the most prominent of these (J.P. Narayan and B.R. Ambedkar) were not members of the Congress Party.” (2)

National interest last

The truth is that used to being fawned over by Congress toadies, his leftist British cronies and the likes of Louis Mountbatten (who even allowed his wife to have a not so discreet affair with Nehru), the prime minister was way out of his depth in America. (3)

Dean Acheson, the secretary of state under US President Harry Truman (1945 to 1953) wrote about the 1949 visit in his autobiography that after the official talks, he took Nehru to his home for a private conversation, with the intention of establishing a personal rapport with him. The conversation started at 10:30 pm and went on till after 1 am. At the end, Acheson said that he found Nehru to be “one of the most difficult men to deal with”. “I had hoped that, uninhibited by a cloud of witnesses, we might be able to establish a personal relationship,” he wrote. “But he would not relax. He talked to me….as though I were a public meeting.” (4)

Worse, the Prime Minister treated his US week as more of a sightseeing tour. What could have been an epochal visit, a game changer in world history, became at best a working holiday. India’s Finance Minister C.D. Deshmukh, who accompanied Nehru to Washington, noted that Nehru ignored his suggestions for more extended talks on American economic investment in India. The Prime Minister apparently thought it was beneath his dignity to appear to be too eager a supplicant.

Nehru also upset the American leadership by his constant harping on non-alignment. The fact is India’s non-alignment was a fig leaf for Nehru’s laziness as a leader. Rather than doing the hard work of creating a prosperous India, he wanted to change the world – or pretend to change the world. At any rate, India’s tilt towards Moscow – while criticising American policy around the world – was the heights of hypocrisy.

As Pervaiz Cheema and Manuel Riemer comment in ‘Pakistan’s Defence Policy 1947-58’: “Nehru’s sermonisation of non-alignment and idealism in world affairs coupled with his own contradictory stands on issues in which India was directly involved in many ways disillusioned some Americans and the tour as a whole generated more irritation than goodwill.”

Another Nehruvian blunder that created a major rift with the US was India’s decision to give full recognition to China in December 1949. “This Indian decision was thoroughly resented and opposed by the Americans because they felt that this was against the American policy of containment of communism,” writes historian N. Jayapalan. “America felt that the Indian decision would help Russia against America and would enhance the growing communist influence in different parts of the world. As such China came to be a disturbing and hindering factor of Indo-US relations.” (5)

Because of Nehru’s refusal to talk about critical issues such as economic aid or the communist threat to free societies, President Truman and his aides did not bring up these issues either. Nehru’s reticence to talk about matters of national interest is in stark contrast to the ingratiating behaviour of Pakistani dictator Ayub Khan, who on his visit to the US said to President Lyndon Johnson: “The Pakistan Army is your army.”

The Pakistanis may have lacked class, but they were unequivocal. Their words were music to the ears of the American leaders and generals who were paranoid about communism and desperate for allies in the Cold War. Mohandas Gandhi’s remarks at independence that the country was in the safe hands of his protégé Nehru proved to be wrong – India was in very poor hands. Nehru had set in motion the process of creating a very powerful enemy which would go on to arm and strengthen both Pakistan and China.

Frittering away goodwill

Unlike Modi who seems to get increasingly popular around the world with each passing year and each visit, in Nehru’s case it was exactly the opposite. He started off as the charismatic leader of a brave new country that had defeated the powerful British Empire. Purely because of his connection with Gandhi and India, he was a darling of the liberal media in the West, especially America.

In 1949, New York-based journalist Walter Lippman praised Jawaharlal Nehru as “the greatest figure in Asia”, and recommended that the US consult with him on China, Indochina and other regional issues. (6) In the US Congress, a number of liberals were drawing attention to India’s democratic orientation and calling for economic aid to the country. Lippman said that “from every point of view – economically, politically and for purposes of defence – India is the logical choice”.

Less than four years after independence, Nehru had frittered away all the goodwill that India had accrued during the freedom struggle. According to Jagdish Prasad, former member of the Governor General’s Executive Council, India was left with no friends in the West because of “self-praise”, “arrogant self-conceit” and the belief that India’s foreign policy was “superior to that of all other powers because it is claimed to be based on truth and non-violence”. (7)

Prasad wrote: “The great powers do not wish to be told by implication that in contrast to our foreign policy theirs is based on trickery and violence; that we are the only people in the world to handle international affairs on a moral basis, and that our superiority on this score is now universally recognised and receives worldwide homage.”

Even J.B. Kripalani, Praja Socialist Party (PSP) leader and a Congress stalwart during the freedom struggle, admitted in an article in Foreign Affairs in1959 that India’s prestige built up under Nehru had not helped “advance any vital interests of India or diminish tension on her borders”. Kripalani argued: “The Indian government thought that the whole business of diplomacy consisted in enunciating the principles of international policy. But international politics is not concerned merely with enunciation of abstract principles. It is very much concerned with international diplomacy, strategy and tactics.” (8)

According to Kripalani, there was always “a danger in overemphasising moral and ideological principles in international affairs. There are bound to be contradictions in the actual conduct of nations in dealing with each other”.

In his subsequent visits to the US, during the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower (1956) and John F. Kennedy (1961), Nehru didn’t make any headway. If the Americans noted one consistent feature about Nehruvian thinking it was that Nehru had developed a huge blind spot when it came to communism. He shocked Eisenhower by dismissing any possibility that China would attack India, given the “fortunate location of the Himalayan mountain chain” on their 2,900 km common border. (9)

Nehru also made a strategic blunder for which India has been paying ever since. The Eisenhower administration offered to give China’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council — and the veto power — to India. However, the Indian Prime Minister spurned the offer, saying a nation of “600 million souls” must have its rightful place in the Security Council and that India wasn’t ready for it. The Americans must have been flabbergasted by the man’s naivety. (Nehru isn’t alone; it is a hallmark of other Indian leaders including Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi).

Nehru again showed the Americans his hypocritical side. “It turned out that the leader of the world’s largest Hindu country liked filet mignon (beef) and enjoyed an occasional Scotch as long as it was all in private. Nehru’s daughter, Indira, accompanied him to the farm and reportedly shared his food preferences.” (9)

Kennedy was the only US President of the Cold War era who had great love for India and wanted to help the country economically. But Nehru managed to screw up. Kennedy said of his discussions with Nehru at the 1961 summit: “It was like trying to grab something in your hand, only to have it turn out to be fog.” Kennedy rated it his “worst state visit ever”.

Neutrality – a dummy sold to the Indian public

The Non-Aligned Movement was essentially an Orwellian outfit because while it professed non-alignment, virtually all its member countries were either pro Russia or pro America. In fact, virtually all its resolutions were anti-American. This so riled the Americans they believed that Indian neutralism had got its comeuppance in the 1962 War.

Indeed, after years of pretend neutrality, after nearly two decades of blasting America while blindly supporting China and the Soviets, Nehru literally begged for American aid. On November 19, 1962, in a secret message to Kennedy, he wrote that India needed “air transport and jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression. A lot more effort, both from us and from our friends will be required to roll back this aggressive tide”. (10)

India’s only hope, Nehru wrote, was to counter China’s gains on the ground with the use of airpower: “A minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all weather fighters are essential. We have no modern radar cover in the country. The United States Air Force personnel will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained.”

Roger Hilsman, an assistant secretary of state who came to New Delhi with a high-level delegation to offer help, following Nehru’s appeal, could not refrain from a sharp observation: “We were ushered into the Prime Ministerial residence through the reception hall lined with the photographs of all the neutral an unaligned Chiefs of State who have so notably failed to come to India’s support during the present crisis. The irony was more than funny – it was oppressive.” (11)

In the end, Nehru lacked friends on either side. For all his admiration of the Soviet Union, the Russians didn’t think much of him. Andrey Vyshinsky, the Soviet representative at the UN once said to the Indian delegation: “At best you Indians are dreamers and idealists; at worst instruments of horrible American policy.”

The greatest failure of the Indian leadership was that it failed to see that it was India that was the “main prize” for the Americans. According to Stephen P. Cohen, while Pakistan had become a useful ally in 1954, India was the main prize, and several American administrations believed that the most significant contest in Asia was that between communist China and democratic India. (12)

“The extreme form of this argument was expounded by (political theorist) Walt W. Rostow who justified the American intervention in Vietnam because if communist aggression succeeded then India, the most important of all of the dominos, would ultimately fall to communism. (It came as something of a surprise to Indian diplomats to learn from Rostow that their country was the reason why America had intervened in Southeast Asia).”


An interesting sidelight of the Cold War is the pattern of India’s voting at the United Nations. It wasn’t the Russians, Cubans or East Germans but India that had cast the maximum number of negative votes against the US. In fact, one of the reasons the disgraced American president Richard Nixon hated India was due to India’s voting on Vietnam. As Nixon said to his secretary of state Henry Kissinger during the 1971 War, “these goddamn, sanctimonious Indians” have “pissed on us on Vietnam for five years”.

The trenchant anti-Americanism that afflicted many Indians and the anti-Indian sentiment that is carried by large sections of American policy makers, think tanks and academia today is a legacy of Nehru’s foreign policy. Modi has the task of wiping the slate clean so the two largest democracies can work as partners.

It may be argued that the US was (and perhaps still is) trying to infiltrate India via its brand of fundamentalist Christianity because of the adversarial nature of the relationship. Here again, it was Nehru who allowed American churches to set up base in India over the objections of Indian leaders such as President S. Radhakrishnan.

America’s fascination with Modi persists despite his decision to curb the activity of American backed churches and NGOs in India. This is any day better than a leader like Nehru who was opposed to America while at the same time allowing American Christians to hollow out the country via religious conversions. Having the US as a strategic partner would therefore make it easier to eradicate the menace of Christian proselytisation in India.


  1. Dennis Merrill, Indo-American Relations, 1947-50: A Missed Opportunity in Asia, Diplomatic History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (SUMMER 1987), page 221.
  2. Stephen P. Cohen, India and America: An Emerging Relationship, page 2
  3. Edwina-Nehru affair got Kashmir deal done, News18,
  4. Dean Acheson, ‘Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department’, 1970
  5. N. Jayapalan, Foreign Policy of India, page 129
  6. New York Herald, 10 January, 1949
  7. Aparna Pande, From Chankya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy
  8. For Principled Neutrality: A New Appraisal of Indian Foreign Policy, J.B. Kripalani, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 1 (October 1959), pages 46-60
  9. Ike And India, 1950–60, Chapter One, Brookings
  10. The Telegraph,
  11. Andrew Rotter, Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964
  12. Stephen P. Cohen, India and America: An Emerging Relationship, page 3

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.