India: From Real Idealism to Idealist Realism

India: From Real Idealism to Idealist Realism

When India began its tryst with destiny at the midnight hour of 14 August, 1947, its leaders were well aware that the independent nation was taking birth at the cusp of momentous times. On one hand, Fascism and its 20th century soulmate, Nazism has been decisively defeated. On the other, imperialism of 18th and 19th Europe century was unraveling itself, on the face of myriad ideological challenges. The decline of the global powers – weakened by the energy-sapping world wars – was laying the seeds of a new international order.

In this backdrop, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – possibly the only notable internationalist in his party, the Indian National Congress – decided to take the reins of the country’s foreign policy in his own hands. Nehru was imbued with the moral vision of Gandhian India. Yet, as a modern, Renaissance man, he was well aware of the exigencies of statecraft, to the extent that he was less critical of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany than the ‘perfidy’ of the European powers who had mollycoddled Hitler for they thought he would eradicate the menace of communism from their doorsteps.

In addition, in light of his experience with Europe in early-20th Century, he was deeply committed to de-colonization. In the wake of World War II, as new and newer nations were being born out of the imperial holdings of the former world powers, Nehru at the helm of India, which had beaten back the British yoke with minimum of bloodshed, seemed to many as the natural leader of these young nations. His intellectual acuity, as translated into his worldview, contributed in no small measure to his international stature. On a personal front, hemmed in by seemingly insuperable problems on the domestic front, Nehru too enjoyed the breathing space that foreign policy accorded him.

Many of those attributes were tested very quickly; within months of India gaining freedom. The unfinished agenda item of the partition of the country, the issue of Kashmir, came to a boil as India’s twin country Pakistan sent in Muslim marauders with the hope that they could engineer a revolt in the Muslim-majority state and detach it from New Delhi’s control. India sent in troops even as the Hindu king of Kashmir signed the treaty of accession, ceding to the new Indian government his suzerainty. The troops quickly evicted Pakistan’s agents, but it defined in bold relief one of the most crucial signposts of Indian diplomacy.

Nehru, the anti-colonial liberator and an internationalist, had his instincts tested. Much has been made, especially by the non-Congress rightist elements, about his seemingly gratuitous promise of holding a plebiscite in Kashmir – especially when a legally instrument of accession had been signed – when the time was suited for it. But seldom have such circles reflected on what had been the opinion of those leaders within the Congress, and indeed his Union Cabinet, who supported Nehru’s opinion.

Vallabhbhai Patel, to whom goes the credit of stitching India together as one nation for the first time in its thousand year history, is supposedly their leitmotif. KH Khursheed, the former private secretary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in an interview with the late Rajendra Sareen, a prominent journalist, had recounted that Patel, then Indian Home Minister, had made the offer through Lord Mountbatten that if Pakistan stayed out of Hyderabad, India would stay out of Kashmir. Shaukat Hyat Khan, a Pakistani leader who had carried the message and entreated the then prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, to accept the deal, stated that the latter had reacted thus: “Have you gone out of your mind? Why should we leave a province larger than Punjab [Hyderabad, representing modern Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra] and settle for some mountain rocks [Kashmir]?”

Those mountain rocks had posed one of the most important challenges to the incipient United Nations, apart from the Palestine problem. Nehru again had been blamed for the reference to the world body of India’s supposedly domestic dispute. The idealist Nehru had possibly wanted to test his faith in the post-War international lodestone while the realist Nehru was apprehensive about the new power equations of the world.  Yet, by deferring to the UN, he had walked into the miasma of international politics that was taking shape in the impending Cold War.

Nehru was not anything but quick to catch the drift of international politics. Even as his ambassadors to the UN – the likes of VK Krishna Menon – inundated the talking shop with polemics, the prime minister carved out a new path by opposing the West in their first battle against Communism in Korea. So surprised were the Communist powers of the day, the Soviet Union and China, that one of their decided followers, Tariq Ali, had this to say, “….in Moscow and Peking (Beijing) there was genuine bewilderment. How could this happen, they asked each other. Was not India a thoroughly bourgeois country? Were not India’s capitalists solidly behind Nehru? If even the British Labour government was forced by economic realities to kowtow to the Americans, how had Nehru managed to escape the net? Could non-alignment then be something real?”

The coinage of the term ‘non-alignment’ was not credited to Nehru; supposedly a product of the massive, albeit eccentric, intellect of the prime minister’s alter ego, Krishna Menon. But the politics of non-alignment – its ideological moorings and its policy directions – were clearly Nehru’s. If there is one foreign policy success that can be hailed as a pathfinder for a Third World nation during the incredibly fractious Cold War decades of 1950s through the 1980s, non-alignment is the one. It enabled India for decades to be the moral voice of the globe on issues of human liberty, economic backwardness and disarmament. The international influence that non-alignment accorded to India was wholly incommensurate in terms of the country’s lack of traditional currencies of power – economic might and military strength. However, it did not endear India with either of the contemporary superpowers. And thereby lay a tale.

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a researcher and analyst specializing on Strategic Security issues. He can be contacted at

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