At the time of Independence, and even prior to that date, Jawaharlal Nehru had a vision of India’s importance in the world, and in his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech on August 14, 1947, dedicated India’s independence to “the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity”. Nehru thought that India’s exceptionalism based on its ancient history and traditions, despite its material weaknesses, made it the fourth country in the world, after only the United States of America, the USSR and the United Kingdom. This Indian self-confidence and attitude of moral superiority were not welcome to many other countries, which challenged Nehru’s assumption of being the leader of Asia, and the priggishness of Nehru’s envoy, V.K. Krishna Menon, and some Indian diplomats was deeply resented by the West. But the Nehruvian vision continues to be a theme in Indian foreign policy and has been echoed repeatedly, the most recent instance being the inaugural speech by the president, Ram Nath Kovind, who referred to this century as the Indian century, adding “it is appropriate that the land of Lord Buddha should lead the world…”
Nehru was uncomfortable with the term, ‘non-alignment’, due to its negative connotations, preferring to call his policy, ‘positive neutrality’ or peaceful coexistence. Although grounded in the rhetoric of high principle, non-alignment served India well, enabling it to maintain a degree of action independent of the two power blocs of the Cold War, which existed between the US and the Soviet Union from the end of the Second World War until 1991. This permitted India to obtain financial and economic assistance and military stores from both East and West, although not always without friction, and become an exemplar to other newly independent countries – the Organization of African Unity, for instance, declaring at one stroke that all its members were non-aligned. For India, this policy enabled it to punch well above its weight during the Korean War and the conflict in Indo-China, although Nehru’s dream of Asian unity and an Afro-Asian meeting of minds foundered despite the Panchsheel agreement with China in 1954. His preference was for India to be non-aligned even in regard to the non-aligned, and this, too, was frustrated by the Non-Aligned Movement, which began as a one-off gathering but morphed into a succession of unwieldy conferences after his death.
The conflict with China which blighted Nehru’s last years shattered many Nehruvian assumptions and led to a closer relationship under his successors with Moscow not only due to the Soviet Union’s stand on Kashmir and Goa, and its consistent opposition to imperialism and racism, but also because of the Sino-Soviet split, the support from the West to Pakistan, and the easier terms on which both economic aid and military supplies were available from the Soviet bloc. Non-alignment was still the professed philosophy, and relations with the US enjoyed periods of brief bonhomie, but the ‘genuine non-alignment’ claimed by the Janata government of 1977-80 proved to be nothing more than old wine in new bottles, and the American pressure on Morarji Desai to sign the non-proliferation treaty was counter-productive. Even more so was the open antagonism shown by Washington to the liberation of Bangladesh and Indira Gandhi’s leadership role in that emancipation. As the US drew closer to China and Pakistan, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1971 between India and the Soviet Union was regarded by Indian opinion as not only a practical necessity, but also in no way derogating from the principles of non-alignment.
With the advent of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto as heads of government in their respective countries, it seemed that new thinking could emerge in the subcontinent that would dissolve the intractable positions of the past. This optimism also proved to be short-lived, as the situation in Kashmir deteriorated rapidly due to New Delhi’s mismanagement and increasing open and covert interventions by Pakistan even as the conflict between the US-Pakistan-backed mujahids and the Soviet-backed authority in Afghanistan drew to a bloody close and the Taliban, nurtured in Pakistan, made their malign appearance. Rajiv Gandhi tried to breathe life into long-standing global issues like general and complete disarmament, the protection of the environment and South-South economic cooperation, but he overestimated the strength of the third world (including Sweden, Mexico and Greece) and underestimated the growing power of the US, which was soon to become the dominant player in international affairs. For want of Washington’s support, Rajiv Gandhi’s initiatives failed to gain any traction.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav federation led to calls within India for the prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, to signal the demise of the Non-Aligned Movement, but New Delhi preferred to continue its membership while according it significantly lower priority. The new situation called for a realignment of Indian policy and the earlier scepticism towards the US and the nations of Southeast Asia gave way to a realistic appraisal of the benefits of US support for India’s more liberalized economy, and a ‘Look East’ policy with overtures to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Underlying both was an unspoken but obvious desire to enlist sympathizers against China which would lead later to stronger Indian ties with Japan and Australia. Rao and his successors in the 1990s navigated these choppy waters quite successfully. Non-alignment was little spoken of, even in the Congress, and the new rubric was strategic autonomy. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee took this to its logical conclusion with the testing of nuclear weapons in 1998 and Manmohan Singh with the Indo-US civil nuclear deal 10 years later.
All Indian prime ministers since Nehru have struggled to find a pathway for rapprochement with Pakistan and an honourable conclusion to the border dispute with China. Problems with these two neighbours boxed India into its regional subcontinent and inhibited its attempts to play a bigger role on the world stage despite the growing economy which led observers to describe India as ‘an emerging power’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought new zest to Indian diplomacy with his energy and by evoking enthusiastic patriotism among the overseas Indian communities, but his robust approaches to Pakistan and China have replaced the friendly démarches to the two countries during his first year in office. As was the case from the 1950s onwards, the US’s connections with its ‘non-Nato ally’, Pakistan, are watched with apprehension, and the wooden-headed Russophobia, so clearly apparent in American Congressional and media circles, has driven Moscow and Beijing closer. This can only be bad news for New Delhi. Being a recent ‘strategic ally’ of the US has opened the doors to more high-technology arms sales from America, but has not placed India in a relatively stronger diplomatic position against its old adversaries.
In international affairs, the landscape is forever in flux, calling for the greatest degree of flexibility. Lord Palmerston’s lapidary dictum was that “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This sage warning should not be ignored at the time of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, when the American presidency appears afflicted by terminal eccentricity, when China is translating its considerable economic resources into trans-continental assertiveness, and when Pakistan reels under the unresolved power-play between its army and the elected civilian leadership. Repeatedly urging the world to take note of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism does not communicate the impression of India as the stronger party; nor will the deployment of personal chemistry, which the prime minister has in abundance, solve hard-wired international disputes. Attaching India to a US-led containment policy of China and placing stringent preconditions on a dialogue with Pakistan will estop New Delhi from benefiting from the opportunities provided by future favourable trends in the world scenario. And these will happen, provided the government gives total priority to an inclusive, employment-creative economic advancement that alone will earn India world-wide respect and drive its effective diplomacy.
The author is a former foreign secretary of India
The article was published in The Telegraph on August 29, 2017