The first time an Indian prime minister visited the US was in 1949. President Harry S Truman invited a very fresh and gleaming Jawaharlal Nehru, two years into India’s prime ministership, to the US on an official visit.
Clearly, the prospect of bringing Nehru’s India into a friendly equation with the US-led western bloc was high on the US president’s post-war agenda. And, going beyond the needs of protocol, there Truman is, waiting at the airport, with his entire cabinet, to receive the Indian leader.
Forgotten is the Allied Powers’ dim view of the Indian leader’s antagonistic role in the Quit India movement, Britain’s hostility to his fiery advocacy of freedom and his long incarceration in Ahmednagar prison, as an “enemy” of the war-effort.
A lovely picture captures the arrival in Washington on that sunny day. Nehru, in a black sherwani and his signature cap, is seated with his host in an open convertible. He looks with some amusement at Truman waving at someone with his straw hat. Our ambassador Vijayalakshmi Pandit, wearing very round-rimmed sunglasses, is seated between them.
Nehru was a sparkling star at home at the time.
Bereft at the loss of the Mahatma, India seemed to realise in its soul what Gandhi meant when, in memorable words, he said Nehru was to be his heir and successor and that the nation “will be safe in his hands”.
He had already given to the Constituent Assembly, on February 17 that year, an outline of independent India’s new foreign policy based on a freedom to judge world events on merit. And, indicating a vision for India’s role in world science, had set up the Atomic Energy Commission, assuming charge of that body, and its department in government, himself.
So here was the new leader, in complete control, wooed by the world, selecting friendship over alliances, affinity over pacts, and demonstrating India’s willingness and ability to assume a frontier role in scientific endeavour and economic example.
Nehru addressed the US Congress, which loved hearing him say India stood with the US in the preservation of liberty, justice and peace in the world. And it basked in his praise of the US’ academic stature when, at Columbia University, then headed by General Dwight D Eisenhower, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
Seven decades later, a very fresh and beaming PM of India, Narendra Modi, with a strong mandate for leadership at home, goes with the resplendent aura of a stellar scientific achievement in the Mars mission, to the US. And he does so on a personal invitation from President Barack Obama.
Forgotten is the US’ strong and long boycott of the former chief minister of Gujarat. US compulsions and foreign policy imperatives have given Modi a willed amnesia about 2002. Public memory does not exculpate, does not exonerate, but it does not believe in excavating the past beyond a point.
The Indian PM goes with the confidence he will be seen as a symbol of India’s democratic will, India’s scientific audaciousness, India’s economic venturesomeness.
But this is to be noted: On his first visit to the US, PM Nehru went to represent, not market India .
A PM of India is the leader of 1.2 billion people. He represents those who adore him and those who do not. He leads those who voted for him and those who voted against him.
When PM Modi wants the world to partner with India, and Indians to embrace the world, he has to be seen as one who partners all Indians, embraces all Indians, without exception. In a literal sense, he has done so.
But the world, which includes US public opinion, is not ignorant of the chemistry of the party he leads as its supremo. It is watching both the Mangalyaan cruise into its red orbit and the basest bigots create mayhem in the towns of Uttar Pradesh. President Obama’s presidency will, hopefully, remind PM Modi of the potential of the minorities and, even more, their power.
And, hopefully, our PM will meet thinkers, writers, artists, so many of who know India extremely well. And when he does, he will move to the human condition.
Whatever our internal differences, India was united on foreign policy during the Nehru era and later. India gave the lead for stopping nuclear tests, for preventing the militarisation of the Antarctic, the abolition of colonialism and apartheid and carried with it other nations on these broader human issues.
There are unprecedented crises in this world now, of which Isis and the dangers of a return to the Cold War, are only the most important.
There is the matter of unknown pandemics like Ebola threatening the world, a seeming new vulnerability to natural disasters, and there is, overarching these, climate change.
What kind of a lead can he give in this situation? Like President Xi Jinping, Modi did not care to attend the UN Climate Summit called by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Why? Does he think of global warming as a matter of little importance, of the floods in Kashmir and Assam as just ‘one of those one-off, unconnected things’?
There are two hallooings Modi can be sure of. The first will be that of the NRIs and PIOs. They will be pleasing, they ought not to be monopolising. The PM travels abroad not to meet his fellow-citizens, but to meet his hosts.
The second will be that of the chambers of commerce, many of them, again, overlapping with the PIO. These too will be pleasant, they must not be overwhelming. The US is a lot about chambers of commerce.
But it is also about a great deal more. It is about serious intellectual, aesthetic, professional and ideational engagements with India’s past, present and future.
Will that bigger, ‘thinking’ US, the US descended from Einstein, Oppenheimer, Adlai Stevenson, Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, Robert Frost, Saul Bellow, Lewis Mumford, see our PM at all?
If people like Noam Chomsky, Edward O Wilson, Oprah Winfrey and John MacLaughlin, do get to seeing him, they should see someone who is passionate for a prosperous India but , equally, for a just world. As we wish his visit a resounding success that is rightly and exclusively his, we must also want it to have a greater fulfilment that is India’s.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University. The views expressed by the author are personal.)