The passing of John Kenneth Galbraith brings back a flood of memories of this outstanding man (in every sense of the expression), especially of his India connection, that need to be shared.
Six years before he arrived in Delhi as one of the more popular American envoys - and became the first reluctant occupant of Roosevelt House, shifting from the lovely residence at 17 Amrita Shergill Marg - he had spent a year in India advising the Planning Commission, then dominated by his friend P.C. Mahalanobis, on the formulation of the Second Five-Year Plan.
Incidentally, the Eisenhower administration had initially offered the services of Milton Friedman for this purpose. On this Galbraith’s typical comment was: ‘‘To ask him to advise on economic planning is like asking the Holy Father to counsel on the operation of a birth control clinic.’’
Taking his advisory assignment seriously, JKG wrote several papers, the most important of which was titled ‘‘India’s Post Office Socialism’’. Even at this distance of time it remains remarkably relevant because, in it, he had brilliantly analysed the causes, principally the politico-bureaucratic stranglehold on the growing public sector undertakings that in later years were to transform many of these sacred cows into white elephants.
The paper inevitably leaked and was quoted in Parliament. In the prevailing atmosphere it led to a loud but uninformed controversy. So much so that even so able a parliamentarian as Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant confused Galbraith with an Englishman, named Braithwaite!
By this time Galbraith had established a cordial rapport with Jawaharlal Nehru that served him well when he became ambassador. But even during those days his association with the Prime Minister was at two levels, official and personal. For instance, which other ambassador could have sent Nehru a note asking whether he could spare a few minutes to see his house guest, the “lovely Hollywood actress Angie Dickinson”, anxious like all visitors to India to meet the Prime Minister? Within the hour he was asked to bring his guest to Teen Murti. Nehru and Angie talked for two hours.
In her time Indira Gandhi listened to Galbraith with respect and sometimes sought his advice. With Rajiv, his relationship was even more avuncular. Shortly before his crucial visit to China in December 1988, Rajiv Gandhi discussed with JKG, among other things, Aksai Chin. As Galbraith told me a few days later - in “strict confidence” that I have respected till today - his reply to Rajiv was, ‘‘Whoever has seen Aksai Chin, as I have, would want someone else to have it.’’
Two years earlier, while researching for my biography of Indira Gandhi, I had asked him what he thought of Rajiv Gandhi succeeding his mother within hours of he assassination. He had refused to comment because he did not want to ‘‘insult the memories of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys’’.
During the 27 months JKG was ambassador to this country, the most important event was, of course, the brief but traumatic border war with China. Ironically, on October 20, 1962 he was caught on the wrong foot. He was in London, scheduled to deliver a lecture at the Guild Hall the next day and then to leave for Moscow. he had gone to the theatre and returned to his hotel late. In the wee hours or the morning, a US embassy official, with an ‘‘Eyes Only’’ message from President Kennedy, woke him up. JFK’s cable regretted that his ambassadors were seldom at their posts ‘‘when needed the most’’ and ordered him to cancel the lecture and leave for Delhi ‘‘forthwith’’.
Galbraith’s active, indeed intimate, role during the month-long war and its aftermath is too well known to need recounting. Except to record, with great anguish, that his was arguably the most forceful voice giving Nehru the unwise advice to desist from using the air force against the Chinese, a counsel the Prime Minister accepted.
In Ambassador’s Journal, one of the 33 books he wrote, JKG has recorded with satisfaction that he was left virtually free to make and run policy on the India-China war because it had coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis that had completely absorbed the attention of all the top policy makers in Washington. That very little attention has been paid so far to this significant coincidence between the events in the Himalayas and the Caribbean is intriguing but it is a different story.
He hasn’t said so in Journal but never made a secret of it in private conversation that his second “great satisfaction” in 1962 was to witness the “dismissal” of Krishna Menon as Defence Minister. In his diary, he had noted down in full all the wounding remarks against Menon that his colleagues in the government had made to the ambassador but decided to delete them from the book.
Through his innings as ambassador, Galbraith had only one nightmare. It had nothing to with either the border war or the missile crisis. What had shaken him was Jackie Kennedy’s insistence, during her hugely successful, glamour-filled visit to India in March 1962, to see the Sun temple at Konarak. He was mortified by the very thought of Jackie being photographed while looking at some of the more erotic statues. When his attempts to dissuade her failed, he “sheepishly” appealed to her husband. JFK listened to him patiently and said only, “Don’t you think she is old enough”?
Luckily for the ambassador, “for reasons of time and a sinus attack”, Konarak had to be dropped from the schedule.
Countless is the number of those at the receiving end of Galbraith’s slings and arrows, sharpened by wit and laced with just a touch of malice. But this does not mean that he himself was never a target. In fact, on the day his appointment as ambassador to India was announced, The New York Times published a profile of him. At breakfast, Kennedy asked him how he liked it.
JKG replied it was fine but “I cannot see why they had to call me arrogant”.
JFK: “I don’t see why not, everyone else does”.