Had Graham Greene written his 1955 bestseller on India instead of the United States, it would have been titled, The Prickly Indian. Made into a film twice, once in 1958 (Audie Murphy, Michael Redgrave) and again in 2002 (Brendan Fraser, Michael Caine), Greene’s The Quiet American tells the story of a British journalist, Thomas Fowler, and an American undercover CIA agent, Alden Pyle, in Vietnam. Pyle, the quiet American, has little “real world” experience and has learned everything he knows about Southeast Asia from books.

While Pyle’s story is about a young and idealistic American brimming with the superpower hubris and itching to introduce a strange and ancient culture to a better way of life, the American dream, the Indian version of the saga would be of a middle-aged man with a veneer of warmth but aloof, arrogant, and quick to take offence. As one journalist wrote, Oscar Wilde’s observation about the United States, that it went from barbarism to decadence without the intervening stage of civilisation, can be adapted to India thus, that the Indian went from abject humility to outright arrogance without the usual interval of healthy self-esteem.

India’s founding fathers made up in idealism what they lacked in ambition in matters of foreign policy. The continuity of this trend has been amply reflected by their successors in their slavish loyalty to moribund ideology and doctrine, and the lack of strategic vision has provided abundant cover for deeper failings of Indian diplomats. Even after 65 years of independence, India has neither developed close and strategic relations with any country (US-UK, US-Israel) nor has it fostered a coterie of like-minded states (EU, GCC) in furtherance of its national interests.

Most analysts of India’s foreign relations assume the cool and formal tone South Block oozes to be a combination of the cultural importance Indians give to protocol and the failure of strategic thinking. There is some truth to this, but a third and often-overlooked ingredient to Delhi’s aloofness, apparent more to practitioners of diplomacy rather than its scholars, is prickliness or arrogance. This personal shortcoming in many of India’s top politicians and bureaucrats has done irredeemable damage to the country’s interests over the years.

Among the more famous and early examples of Indian arrogance is recorded by the US ambassador to India (1948-1951), Loy Henderson, who wrote of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister,

“Nehru has had an anti-American bias since his school days in England. There,he obtained the idea that the United Sates was an overgrown, blundering, uncultured, and somewhat crass nation, and that Americans in general were an ill-mannered and immature people, more interested in such toys as could be produced by modern technique and in satisfaction of their creature comforts than in endeavouring to understanding great moral and social trends of this age.”

Even if one dismisses Washington’s perspective on Nehru because of its disagreement over India’s non-alignment, Nepali Prime Minister Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala’s similar assessment is harder to ignore. In a conversation with an American diplomat, Koirala said that Nehru’s impatience often alienated him, and that Chinese diplomats were more refined than their Indian counterparts. Koirala’s words are still echoed in Nepal to this day.

Were the sentiment reserved to just one Indian official, even the prime minister, international exasperation with India might have been less. Yet this was not to be so. Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, arguably India’s most controversial defence minister, has been described as vitriolic, intolerant, arrogant, and abrasive by British as well as American officials. Another Menon, this time India’s ambassador to China, Kumara Padmanabha Sivasankara Menon, was also described by the PRC foreign minister, Chen Yi, as arrogant during discussions on the border issue on the eve of the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Moving on to the next decade, it should come as no surprise that India’s ambassador to the United States, Triloki Nath Kaul, a man hand-picked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, found it difficult to get along with officials from his host state. In a cable written by Washington’s man in Delhi, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US State Department was warned not to accept Kaul as India’s ambassador. The telegramme relates the opinion of several western diplomats about Kaul – sly, opportunistic, arrogant, and with a propensity for misconstruing cleverness for sophistication. Moynihan himself wrote, “Kaul, like [the] Nehru family, is a Kashmiri Brahmin, self-assured to point of arrogance by birth.”

The more popular story from the 1970s is of Indira Gandhi’s interaction with US president Richard Nixon and his famous National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger on the eve of the South Asia Crisis of 1971. The Americans found Indira Gandhi intolerable, and declassified US documents reveal the colourful language Nixon and Kissinger used to describe the Indian prime minister. However, unlike Kaul, Indira Gandhi did not earn the ire of almost everyone she met – while cool and aloof to the White House, she charmed other leaders in her whirlwind tour of major international capitals, drumming up support for India’s position on the flood of Bengali refugees from the east and the West Pakistan’s campaign of genocide against their  hapless, ethnically different countrymen.

Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, reiterates this image of the prickly Indian in India as a World Power but is far more understanding than others in the foreign service community. Finding the excessive moral hectoring and arrogance of Indian diplomats and politicians as off-putting as his international colleagues do, he nevertheless asks that we understand the “defensive arrogance and acute sensitivity to real and perceived slights” in the context of India’s history and experience with the outside world.

Despite the urge to be defensive, there have been a few – very few – in Delhi who have lamented the poor standard of Indian officials and understood its multiplier effect on all aspects of international relations. In his autobiography, A Call to Honour: In Service of an Emerging India, former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh acknowledges the problem: “In diplomatic discourse and conduct, India has tended to carry many chips on its shoulder, almost always moralistic, needlessly arrogant, argumentative, mistaking such attitude as being an assertion of national pride.” Echoing Cohen, Singh writes that the “weight of so many centuries of servitude” has created in Indians “such an acute sense of hearing that quite often it hears insults where none exist or are even implied.”

It is not that India is the only country plagued with an arrogant foreign service corps; the United States is notorious for its share of Alden Pyles too. However, US arrogance comes backed by military and economic power, while India is yet to embrace machtpolitik. However, for most smaller states, it is easier to put up with arrogance that also promises aid than with paupered prickliness.

In a study that interviewed many US and Indian officials, one US military officer said, “Indians can be accused of having many cockeyed views,” but “they always have a substantive knowledge of the historical interactions, which makes it difficult to counter their arguments. They always raise the history of events during meetings.” This view was echoed by many others., that while the United States had an arrogance of power, the Indians had an intellectual arrogance. The study concluded,

“The Indian elites are quintessential intellectuals. They thrive on fine-tuned arguments and logic. But US military officers and businessmen are not interested in intellectual arguments—they are interested in practical issues. Consequently, they find India’s intellectual arrogance off-putting and counter-productive.”

As one US official framed it, it was American Calvinist arrogance versus Indian Brahminical arrogance, and as Thucydides remind us, men’s indignation is more excited by a legal or intellectual wrong than by a violent wrong; the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior.

Unfortunately, many Indian scholars have imbibed their diplomats’ prickliness. India has failed to produce sufficient numbers of qualified foreign policy analysts on its own, and the government’s paranoia regarding declassification of state records has forced scholars to work from foreign sources and cultivate privileged access, not all of which is kosher. Usually due to widely varying sources (for example, the British Archives versus an interview with a former Indian bureaucrat), Indian foreign policy wonks have reacted harshly to “outsiders” like William Dalrymple, Bruce Riedel, Francine Frankel, and George Perkovich, oftentimes unfairly or for perceived intentions rather than their scholarly output. This attitude does not further understanding of Delhi’s thinking and only creates polarised minefields where there ought to be research.

To be clear, an arrogant disposition does not lower the merit of one’s case but merely the likelihood of it being heard favourably. Nixon’s relations with the subcontinent serve as the best example of the power of personal charm in diplomacy. The US president could never warm up to the Nehru-Gandhi family or other top Indian officials such as Morarji Desai (when he was Vice President), but got along famously with Pakistan’s military dictators even when President Dwight Eisenhower had already begun to express doubts about the wisdom of CENTO. Even if foreign officials perceive an arrogance that is not there, the impact on India’s national interests can be costly.

Diplomacy is a human activity, dictated as much by personality and psychology as by the hard-headed realism of rational actors. Arrogance might be a tool in the diplomat’s arsenal whose skilled use might goad one’s interlocutor towards a desired behaviour. However, Delhi has been too liberal with its dispensation, approaching international partners as a precocious teenage debating champion than as a seducer par excellence. Little wonder, then, that the Pakistan lobby has a stronger presence in Washington and other Great Power capitals than India’s idiot savants do despite the latter’s greater economic and military potential. Perhaps it is time these learned men of Hindustan applied that ancient counsel from the Manu Smriti: सत्यं ब्रूयात्प्रियं ब्रूयान्न ब्रूयात्सत्यमप्रियम् ।

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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