Late American statesman Henry Kissinger advocated strong ties with India under PM Modi

Henry Kissinger, known for his disdain for India’s leadership in the 1970s, has died at the age of 100, but the well-known American statesman and former secretary of state had been advocating stronger US-India ties for the past decade under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Henry Kissinger came to India in 2019 when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Henry Kissinger came to India in 2019 when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two met again when the Indian PM visited the US on a State Visit in June 2023. Photo courtesy: X/@sidhant

Considered the architect of the US-China relationship since the early 70s, Kissinger died at his home in Connecticut on November 29, 2023. His consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, did not provide a cause of his death.

An admirer of PM Modi

After Modi became the Prime Minister of India in 2014, Kissinger, also the former US National Security Advisor, had advocated strong ties with India. In fact, many say, over the past few years, he had become a great fan of Prime Minister Modi.

When Modi was in Washington DC on an Official State Visit in June 2023, Kissinger, despite his health problems, travelled to the American capital to listen to Modi’s address at the State Department luncheon, jointly hosted by Vice-President Kamala Harris and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

On that occasion, Kissinger was brought in a wheelchair to the historic Benjamin Franklin Room on the seventh floor of the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the State Department. He was greeted at the elevator by US Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti.

During the luncheon, the elderly American statesman, whose influence on American national security and foreign policy is seen as immense, patiently listened to the speech of Prime Minister Modi and then had an interaction with him.

In recent years, Kissinger made his views known to the public on India when he made a fireside appearance in June 2018 along with John Chambers of the US India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF) on the occasion of the organisation’s first anniversary. The fireside chat was closed to the press, but those who attended it recollect how strongly he batted for the India-US relationship.

“When I think about India, I admire their strategy,” Kissinger had said during a rare appearance in Washington to attend the first annual leadership summit of the USISPF in June 2018.

Kissinger in India with PM Modi in 2019.

His ties with India in the 1970s, when he was in the administration both as the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, had soured; but before he turned to China, his first preference was India.

It was at his advice that the US Chambers of Commerce in the 70s established the US India Business Council (USIBC).

As per archival diplomatic conversations, as early as in 1972, he had advocated for India and Japan to be permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Rocky relationship with Indira Gandhi

Historians say that both Kissinger and then President Richard Nixon could not have a healthy relationship with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and they turned their attention to China. Rest is history, many say.

After the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of India as a strong power, his views on India had changed — for successive US administrations, Kissinger had been advocating strong ties with India. Prime Minister Modi has had a few meetings with him.

Speaking at another USISPF event, Kissinger, then 96, said that the Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) crisis of 1971 pushed the two countries to the “edge of confrontations”.

“India was at the beginning of a historic evolution and not all of the problems that concerned were of equal importance to India. India was heavily involved with its own evolution and the policy of neutrality,” he then said in New Delhi.

“If you look at the world, there are upheavals in almost every part of the world and you cannot necessarily develop a general concept for each of them but you can work together on the essentials of peace and progress. Then I would say no two countries now are better situated to evolve their friendship,” Kissinger said.

A day after Dhaka was liberated on December 16, 1971, then President Nixon was told by Kissinger that he had “saved West Pakistan”, according to confidential papers since declassified by the US State Department.

Later, Kissinger told then President Gerald Ford after his meeting with Indira Gandhi in October 1974, a few months after India’s first nuclear test, that she had felt an “almost pathological need” to criticise the US but at the same time desired an improvement in Indo-US relations on a “more equal” basis after Washington recognised India as an “important country in the world”.

On a visit to Afghanistan and in a meeting with Mohammad Daoud, the Head of State and Prime Minister, Kissinger shared a number of views including those on India, non-alignment and the personality of Indira Gandhi.

“I think it’s correct to say Mrs Gandhi does not have a personality that appeals at first blush to Americans. Maybe not even at a second blush. There have even been cases of people who have resisted her a third time,” Kissinger added when asked by Daoud to characterise relations between India and the United States.

Indira Gandhi with General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw (third from right), the key figure of the 1971 war, and other top military officers. Photo courtesy: Instagram/indira_gandhi

Kissinger received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for helping arrange the end of US military involvement in the disastrous Vietnam War. He is also credited with secret diplomacy that helped President Nixon open communist China to the United States and the West, highlighted by Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.

“Our relations with India are friendly and aloof. It’s a fortunate thing the Indians are pacifists, otherwise, their neighbours would be worried. The first time we were in India, they told me that Kabul belonged to India too,” Kissinger was recorded as having said, according to a White House Memo.

Kissinger once acknowledged that the then United States Republican administration had always wished it had a man as “strong” as Indira Gandhi. In the same breath, Kissinger said that Indira Gandhi did not have a personality that appealed at “first blush” to Americans.