updated 7/1/2005 8:15:40 AM ET 2005-07-01T12:15:40

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who derided India and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a private 1971 conversation with President Nixon, expressed regret in an interview aired Friday and insisted the comments be viewed in the context of Cold War politics.

Kissinger told the New Delhi Television channel that Nixon’s reference to Gandhi as an “old witch” — a comment revealed earlier this week in transcripts of Oval Office tapes and newly declassified documents — was “Nixon language.”

“This was not a formal conversation. This was somebody letting off steam at the end of a meeting in which both President Nixon and I were emphasizing that we had gone out of our way to treat Mrs. Gandhi very cordially,” Kissinger, 82, told NDTV. “There was disappointment at the results of the meeting. The language was Nixon language.”

Kissinger’s comments came after an Associated Press story on the transcripts became front-page news across India. But it barely created a ripple in U.S.-Indian ties, which have improved dramatically in recent years.

'Slobbered over the old witch'
Kissinger said the Nov. 5, 1971, conversation had to be viewed as a reflection of the Cold War, during which India leaned toward the Soviet Union. At the time, Gandhi was also seen as keen for a military conflict with Pakistan that the United States was trying to avoid. The war did take place a month later, leading to the creation of the new nation of Bangladesh.

The transcript of the Nixon conversation in the Oval Office was declassified last week.

“We really slobbered over the old witch,” Nixon told Kissinger a day after the president met Gandhi. Kissinger was then the national security adviser.

“The Indians are bastards anyway,” Kissinger responded. “They are starting a war there ... While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too. She will not be able to go home and say that the United States didn’t give her a warm reception and therefore in despair she’s got to go to war.”

Regret expressed
On Thursday, Kissinger, who was interviewed in person, apparently at his home in New York, said the remarks did not reflect U.S. policy of the day.

“I regret that these words were used. I have extremely high regard for Mrs. Gandhi as a statesman,” Kissinger said. “The fact that we were at cross purposes at that time was inherent in the situation but she was a great leader who did great things for her country.”

Relations between India and the United States have changed radically since Kissinger’s days. The two are allies with swiftly growing trade and military ties. Increasing U.S. influence is also seen as having influenced Pakistan to act against separatist Islamic militants who have waged attacks in India’s Kashmir region since 1989.

“The U.S. recognizes that India is a global power, that it is a strategic partner of the U.S. on the big issues,” Kissinger said. He said that both countries’ experiences with terrorism had helped bring them together.

'Unbecoming,' says Indian politician
Still, the remarks by Nixon and Kissinger, captured by a taping system Nixon had secretly installed in the Oval office, stirred anger in India.

“It is shocking that the head of state of a country and his principal adviser chose to use such intemperate language against a popularly elected prime minister of another country,” said Anand Sharma, spokesman of the Congress party, which leads the ruling coalition.

“The remarks were not only distasteful, they were unbecoming of any head of state. The damning of the entire people of India is unacceptable in any civilized dialogue between countries and people,” Sharma said. “These words have no relevance today ... We hope the present U. S. leader also rejects these remarks, which were definitely in very poor taste.”

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