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Sunanda K Datta Ray: Rendezvous with Ronnie


Sunanda K Datta Ray  |  New Delhi 

Did Indira Gandhi use Ronald Reagan or did Reagan use her? A bit of both perhaps, for both leaders stood at an angle to the political systems they dominated, and both were intensely personal. Their meeting might never have taken place, however, if it hadn't been for B K Nehru and Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra.
When she romped back to power in 1980 Mrs Gandhi was smarting from Soviet neglect during her time in the wilderness. She was worried about the Afghan crisis spilling over into the subcontinent.
The economy was in the chaos of Janata and Lok Dal misrule. Reagan was determined to use every stratagem to wean away some of the most faithful allies of the "evil empire", dangling before them the carrot of sophisticated equipment that Moscow did not even have.
Mrs Gandhi began with modest steps away from the command economy. Charanjit Chanana, her new Industry minister, was instructed to launch Operation Forward, the first cautious essay in reform.
Pranab Mukherjee, then only 42, became Commerce minister with full cabinet rank. Socialism didn't grow out of the pipe he smoked, a magazine quipped.
South Block was told to get her invited to a Western country. Britain wasn't interested, Germany was cool because of Willy Brandt's friendship with George Fernandes, Japan ignored feelers.
So she took the matter into her own hands and sent Nehru to Washington with a private letter to Reagan even before he was sworn in. K R Narayanan was waiting to present his credentials, but it was through high-powered social contacts in Washington that Nehru was able to deliver the letter.
The president elect's only contact with India until then was in his sleep. It was when his plane from Taipei to "London, England" made a late night refuelling stop in New Delhi. "At least I slept a few moments in India," he told J N Parimoo of the Times of India.
He had a less casual exposure after moving into the White House. Discovering that his chief responded best to visual aids, his national security adviser, William P Clark (not to be confused with the US ambassador to India of that name), obtained a "profile movie documentary" on world leaders from the CIA. As it happens, the first was of Mrs Gandhi. Reagan saw a film on her instead of having to pour through a bulky tome.
Later, he was to have yet another Indian link in Dinesh D'Souza, the Bombay-born Catholic. Still in his twenties, D'Souza was the first Indian to work for the White House. He loved Reagan and his work as the president's senior domestic policy analyst.
When Harry G. Barnes, the US ambassador, produced the invitation, P.N. Haksar and G. Parthasarathy advised against acceptance. Rasgotra was emphatically in favour, and wrote a long letter to the prime minister, setting out arguments that she welcomed.
Mrs Gandhi decided to break the ice at the International Meeting on Cooperation and Development at Cancun in Mexico.
As a sweetener, she persuaded Fidel Castro, chairman of the non-aligned nations movement, that the group as a whole would lose out if he attended. Reagan had vowed not to sit at the same conference table with Castro.
Indicative of American priorities, the president had set aside a 90-minute lunch for China's Zhao Ziyang and Huang Hua, and only 30 minutes for Mrs Gandhi.
But it stretched to 45, and the gossip was that during the 15-minute tete-a-tete they talked of nothing more momentous than films and family. Anything else would probably have put Reagan to sleep.
He was charmed, saying afterwards that he had been led to expect a very formidable person. A surprised Washington Post commented that "on the face of it, Indira Gandhi and Ronald Reagan are not the likeliest of international chums."
Mrs Gandhi was not the only charmer. Welcoming her on her first official visit to Washington since the disastrous one in 1971, Reagan compared the Nehrus with the Boston Brahmin dynasty of Adams.
To make the flattery even more palatable, he quoted the aristocratic British historian, Lord Bolingbroke, on Adams virtues and service to the nation.
It would be pointless to pretend that a great deal came of these personal encounters. Reagan was too involved undercutting the Soviet Union to have much time for India.
The Soviet invasion of, and then withdrawal from, Afghanistan also greatly strengthened the alliance with Pakistan and Zia-ul Haq. His economic theories were simply capsuled in the old tale of teaching a hungry man to fish instead of giving him a fish to eat.
George Bush, his vice-president, dismissed Reagan's supply side ideas as "voodoo economics" and told Mikhail Gorbachev that "marginal intellectual thugs" surrounded the president.
Indian diplomats grumbled that there was nary a word about India in Reagan's memoirs. But he did get on well with Rajiv Gandhi, and the Year of India, with its central festival, was the outcome.
Reagan and his friends like the two conservative senators, Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch, did not, however, succeed in driving a wedge between India and the Soviet Union until the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Mrs Gandhi and her son failed to secure the steady supply of American arms they had hoped for. The national interests that both countries sought to further were more important than personal rapport.
Asked how an actor could become president, Ronald Reagan, the great Communicator as he was called, shot back: "How can a president not be an actor?"

First Published: Sat, June 12 2004. 00:00 IST