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Remembering three of India's oldest friends

Last updated on: May 30, 2007 12:00 IST
Bangalore was a city for retirees and Gurgaon a sleepy outpost in Haryana. The 1947 to 1990 years of economic famine and geopolitical isolation had not given birth to the nouveau cities of India. In that period very few ventured out from the West and if they did, their destination was places like Rishikesh and Banaras. They came, mostly, to discover the ancient land -- its mysticism, music, and marijuana.

In those years, few Americans spoke up for or about India, even fewer knew and visited the country. You can count on your fingers those who became India's friends, our cohort in the West and through their intellectualism and influence helped steer the ignorant and the unaware.

Last spring, two Americans, John Kenneth Galbraith and Abraham Michael Rosenthal, who had built a special relationship with India, passed away. A few springs ago, in 2003, another such friend, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, died. The lives of these three -- Galbraith, the economist; Rosenthal, the journalist; and Moynihan, the politician are worth remembering.

Unlike Nixon who sprung open the door to China, these three, in their own ways, nudged at the barricade that stood between India and the rest of the world.

John Kenneth Galbraith died on April 29, 2006. An author, an economist, a presidential advisor and known to some as an India lover. It was said that Kennedy, in order to get Galbraith away from Washington, sent him as his envoy to India. Galbraith did not mind, he had spent a year in the 1950s in India and looked forward to his assignment.

After arriving, Galbraith soon became Nehru's friend. Nehru's liking for intellectuals from the West who took time to understand India helped. As ambassador, Galbraith helped Nehru during the latter's most trying post-freedom years -- the conflict with China.

India's friend from Harvard

Galbraith took it upon himself to announce that the United States recognised India's disputed borders, a diplomatic feat unimaginable in contemporary terms. In addition, he started providing India with military and diplomatic assistance as well.

A detailed account of Galbraith's time in India is covered in his book Ambassador's Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years.

The legend who loved India

Unlike Galbraith who made Harvard his home, A M Rosenthal had a more modest start at City College in New York. He is best known as the editor of The New York Times, a position he held for 23 years. Rosenthal died a few days after Galbraith on May 10, 2006.

Rosenthal arrived in India as the Times correspondent in 1954. He spent four years and took time to immerse himself in all things Indian. The New York Times in his obituary said, 'He reveled in its (India's) exotic diversity and developed a deep emotional attachment to India and its people.'

Over those 23 years as editor at the Times, Rosenthal made sure that the newspaper covered India, which is noteworthy considering India was not always an area of focus for most international newspapers. It is also unofficially acknowledged that Rosenthal created a 'tilt' towards India in the newspaper's coverage.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan arrived in India in the 1970s as President Nixon's ambassador. It was at an awkward time as Henry Kissinger had rolled out his policy of 'tilt' towards Pakistan and on the other front Washington was busy dating China.

During Moynihan's time in India, the country exploded its first nuclear bomb. Thereafter, Indira Gandhi invoked the Emergency. The courts followed and ruled her election to Parliament void.

The reply to evil is to stop it

This did not slow down Moynihan. He pursued Congress to write-off majority of the $3 billion debt. He also initiated a programme where intellectuals from American universities started visiting the country on educational tours. Moynihan and his wife travelled extensively across the country spending time understanding India's culture.

'You may get hot, sick, lost in India, but bored? Never'

Moynihan, in 1998, now a senator from New York, put out a statement after India conducted nuclear tests -- a statement that was unique in its moderation. He called India's offer to consider a ban on nuclear testing of 'transcendent importance' and warned the Clinton administration that the Indian government was not going to be intimidated by the sanctions.

'India has been part of my love'

These three Americans standout for indulging India at a time when India was estranged from America. They spent significant time in the country and once back in the States, they continued their interactions and support for it.

They also came in at three different times in India's post-independence history. Rosenthal spent four years in India in the 1950s when the country was attempting to establish its identity; Galbraith spent almost three years in the 1960s bridging Kennedy's Washington with Nehru's Delhi; and Moynihan spent almost two years in the 1970s when India was facing Constitutional challenges. With their experience, they ended-up become interpreters of India's sensibilities and sensitivities to the West.

When studying the backgrounds, in particular of Rosenthal and Galbraith, one starts finding some very interesting correlations that seem providential as well as purposeful. Both died within days of each other. Both were sons of farmers, proud of their parental backgrounds. Both were born in Ontario, Canada, within miles of each other. Both became naturalised citizens in the US. Both were in India about the same time, Rosenthal in the late 1950s, when Galbraith spent a year there. Both became prolific, award-winning writers.

Galbraith, Rosenthal and Moynihan wanted to see India to stretch its limbs in the global marketplace. They wanted India to harvest its latent potential. Today, in the spring of 2007 and in perhaps the spring of India's rise, the three would have been proud of the nation's growth.

Rosenthal would have imposed additional coverage on India. Galbraith would continue his advisory role and caution the country's leaders of road-bumps ahead. Moynihan would use his wit combined with his enormous intellectual strength to blunt those who spread fear about India's economic strength.

The three 'tenors' of India took time to explain her complexities to those in the West who adopted too simplistic a view. In times past, some in the West saw India as a country of snake charmers, the Taj Mahal and Gandhi. In times current, some in the West see India as an economic power consumed with taking jobs away.

Galbraith, Rosenthal and Moynihan saw India holistically for all its capabilities and its challenges. Their writings and speeches speak of their understanding of India's ancient history as well as its future prospects.

These three Americans occupy a special place in India's pre-liberalisation history.

Girish Rishi is writing a long prose on India covering the period between 1946 and 1992. He can be reached at

Girish Rishi