So Richard Nixon found Indian women unattractive and sexless. We shall not ask what Indian women thought of Richard Nixon: after all he lost to JFK for a reason. Even in a dark alley on a moonless night he would not have been mistaken for Robert Redford. Egging on the president in his rabidly racist and misogynistic rants was the high priest of realpolitik, the ravishing Greek god, Dr Henry Kissinger.
While Nixon vented his sexual neuroses in between conversations with Indira Gandhi, Kissinger added dollops of choice racist slurs. Indians, he slyly whispered in the manner of a scheming courtier to a demented monarch, were “scavenging people”, “superb flatterers” and “the most aggressive goddamn people around”. Besides, they were “bastards anyway”. In a classical turnaround, the Jewish teenager who fled racial hate in Nazi Germany had grown up into a perpetrator. For him, Indians were small change: he even let down Jews. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union,” he told Nixon, “it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Maybe.
Nixon is now beyond reach, and can be left to perform slow turns in his resting place like a boar on a spit, as Indian women light up the global stage and screen, parliaments, courts, corporate boards and multilateral institutions, including in the United States. But Dr K is still around, plodding like Geoff Boycott towards a charmless century. He is fair game.
In recent years Dr K has fudged his visceral hatred of India. It should all be seen in “context”, he says, employing the time-honoured feint of the cornered. The context: in 1971, the Nixon-Kissinger dream team was wooing an aloof Asian beauty—China—and like any beau reading poetry to his beloved on a porch, they did not want discordant noise. Ten million refugees and untold atrocities by the Pakistan army be damned; China had to be won and Yahya Khan, the willing matchmaker, had to be rewarded. India would not be allowed to wreck the party. Dr K told our ambassador that in case of war, India was on its own; the arrival of the Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal removed any doubts. The commonality of democratic values was discarded in favour of China.
Men like Dr K are beyond guilt; votaries of realpolitik, they pride themselves on cold-blooded pursuit of self-interest. But nobody likes to be remembered badly. Dr K has tried to make up by expressing grudging regret and dishing out small favours: a word in the right ear, a message passed, a timely op-ed, a television appearance.
We are collectively guilty of slipping into his trap: by allowing him to do us these favours, or indeed in seeking them; we have played along in his attempt to gloss over the past. We feel chuffed at his recognition; his vanity emboldens ours. Gushing accolades greet him in India even as his wheelchair cuts an arrogant swathe through star-struck audiences in five-star halls. Somewhere he must feel validated in saying that the great skill of Indians “was to suck up to people in key positions”.
But great nations can, and should, live beyond transactional trade-offs. We do not need Dr K’s patronising favours to influence the American system and we no longer need help him salve whatever serves as his conscience. Racism is being protested at home in America; it cannot be tolerated abroad. After the latest revelations, Dr Kissinger needs to know where he gets off, and that he actually missed his bus stop some decades ago.
The writer is a former high commissioner of India to the UK and ambassador to the US