'Friends with Benefits' dissects Indo-US ties : The Tribune India

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'Friends with Benefits' dissects Indo-US ties

'Friends with Benefits' dissects Indo-US ties

Friends with benefits: The India-US story by Seema Sirohi. HarperCollins. Pages 490. Rs 699



Book Title: Friends with benefits: The India-US story

Author: Seema Sirohi

Sandeep Dikshit

The cheerleading from the ramparts of the White House after Narendra Modi’s second win in 2019 was unusual, notes Seema Sirohi, a foot-soldier of journalism in Washington for well over three decades.

That cheerleading has continued apace despite the chaotic turnover from the Trump to the Biden administration. Especially because the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy has a starring role for India and the Indian-American is now a political and corporate juggernaut. Sirohi’s book will serve as the foundation for those attempting to understand the India-US story as it takes further shape. For a person whose imbibition of American history has spanned Howard Zinn’s contrarian work ‘A People’s History of the US’, Sirohi also brings into play a balanced perspective that is not dazzled by the recent history of liberalism.

As the narration builds up from the standoffish India-US ties, Sirohi remains unawed by the spin doctors at India House and Foggy Bottom. The half-full sports arena where Modi held his 2015 San Jose rally or the full house at the 2019 Howdy Modi rally in Houston are given a factual airing with a little backstory behind them, as is the case with all the major twists and turns covered by the book in the India-US relationship.

If the latter half becomes a bit about Modi, that is inescapable. After all, he has been much sought after in the UN and White House after the Democrats made a U-turn on the visa issue after he became PM in 2014. When Modi held his first rally in the US, 14 lawmakers who had voted to deny him the visa lined up to felicitate him! Little wonder that South Block does not take at face value the White House harangues about values being involved in the Ukraine conflict.

Concern over the prevailing human rights situation in India and the stigma of Gujarat riots, however, remains undiminished. But this outpouring of human milk of kindness is “part concern and part performance art”. Leftists, Dalit activists, Khalistanis and Muslim organisations have their respective axes to grind, and politicians a vote bank to cater to. The book touches on their intrusion into foreign policy that we from India fathom in bits and pieces. Not that they have cut much ice.

On one US visit, Modi couldn’t accommodate a last-minute German request to meet Angela Merkel. “So, you don’t want to meet me,” Merkel playfully quipped when she went past Modi at the UN. Among many such behind-the-scenes storytelling is the one of how Imran Khan got invited to the White House after an incendiary speech at the UN where he compared Modi to Hitler and hinted at the use of nuclear weapons, making even the buccaneer Trump blanch. “You don’t do that,” he said.

Behind the sheen of high-level interactions are hours of patient negotiations. Sirohi captures the negotiations of many deals that were actually struck in “drab meeting rooms and not the stratospheric of leaders”. S Jaishankar has been at the centre of many of them, notably the Indo-US nuclear deal where Natwar Singh played the “Charmer in Chief”.

Having tracked Jaishankar since his early days as a diplomat, Sirohi sees him as a “seasoned realist” who has “set out to prove his credentials to the BJP” while managing the criticism against the curbs on West-funded NGOs. It was Pratap Kishan Kaul, then Ambassador, who had said in 1989 that India-US problems are like hiccoughs and should not be described as downswings by journalists. Yet, it is worth pondering why 34 years later, the two remain close yet too far.