Foreign policy of nation-states is shaped by context and driven by beliefs. Ideas are relevant only in contextually relevant epochs. Success of ideas in one era may lead to path dependence and lack of flexibility in another. Rigidity occurs as successful ideas take a new avatar as the core beliefs of a nation’s diplomatic craft. India is a classic example of a nation-state where contextual rewiring of diplomatic standpoints faces a pushback due to hardened core beliefs of its policymakers.
In India, the preponderance of Nehruvian ideals as the preamble of foreign policy formulation has resulted in the relegation of useful contemporary ideals grounded in realpolitik. The dynamism of world politics in the current milieu underscores the need for an agile foreign policy that is able to foresee and adapt to constantly changing global reality. In this article, we explore alternative approaches to Nehruvian idealism and argue that a diversity of ideas in India’s foreign policy would serve it better today and in the foreseeable future. We argue that India, the peacock, needs to adapt its rain dance, fundamental approach towards foreign policy, to the dynamic global reality.
Nehruvian approaches like “non-alignment, Panchsheel, anti-colonialism, disarmament and one world”[i] were grounded in Gandhian ideals of “tolerance and means justifying ends”[ii]. The approach based on morals rather than interests was predominantly against the use of aggression for achieving policy goals. The ideals, emerging from the struggle of Indian nationalists against colonialism, shaped the dominant Nehruvian paradigm. However, they too were not universally accepted and were contested from within the Indian National Congress (INC) by members like Bose.
Netaji’s approach was radically different as he believed in exercising force to achieve ends. While he denounced the racism of Nazi Germany and the militarism of 1930s Japan, he allied with them in the 1940s in his single-minded pursuit of Indian freedom from colonial rule[iii]. For him ends justified means. Nehru’s and Netaji’s worldview, though poles apart, were grounded in India’s cultural heritage. Historically, India has never had any difficulty in combining a reverence for saints with admiration for warrior-heroes[iv]. The great Indian epics, especially the Mahabharata, had placed warriors engaged in a just cause, such as Arjuna, on the highest pedestal[v]. However, the dominance of the Nehruvian outlook dealt a fatal blow to the warrior and ensured the preponderance of the saint. Bose’s demise in 1945 made sure that foreign policy of the newly independent India lost realist thought, a trait intrinsic to India’s character.
The phase of relegation of Bose’s approach was simultaneously a phase for the emergence of another ideological standpoint on the margins of the Nehruvian bastion. This new ideological alternative of the establishment is dubbed by us as the cultural realist standpoint. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and its sister organizations were some among its proponents and its core beliefs were shaped predominantly by the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Savarkar and Golwalkar were convinced that the international order is chaotic, driven by self-interest and in a Hobbesian state of war. Both were concerned with the repeated invasion of a nation’s geography by powers from beyond the imagined geography of Bharatvarsha. This, one could argue, was their fear of regions becoming spheres of influence of dominant powers with expansionist orientations. Their approach reveals about their conceptualization of international politics. The duo was vocal about the fact that conflict, though undesirable and blameworthy, was inevitable in an international context comprising players driven by self-interest[vi]. India, they believed, should quit being a dove and must be willing to engage its military in matters of power politics. Cultural realists, it is important to note, did not share classical realism’s concern of amassing material stockpiles. They, on the other hand, argued for fostering national power based on cultural cohesion within the imagined geography.
Savarkar discernibly envisaged a national identity based on cultural cohesion within the imagined geography. He argued that lack of a strong national identity was India’s Achilles heel in its history characterized by invasions of power from afar. As a corollary, a strong national identity based on shared cultural heritage is seen as a precursor to a strong national defence. Hindutva, for an “atheist” like Savarkar, was not a religiously loaded term but a culturally shared trait of the community within the imagined geography.
Savarkar had a profound influence on the BJS. Visible strands of his core philosophy can be observed in the writings of Balraj Madhok. Madhok, a critic of Nehruvian idealism, wrote: “It is wrong to say that the foreign policy of Pandit Nehru, particularly in relation to our immediate neighbours Pakistan, Tibet and China, represented a national consensus”[vii]. He further argued that “there is now a growing realization in the country that platitudes and slogans like Panchsheel, world peace and non-alignment cannot be the basis of India’s foreign policy which must be primarily guided by India’s own interest… Bharatiya Jana Sangh would like India to pursue an independent, rather than non-aligned foreign policy”[viii]. Madhok and the BJS stressed on creating a “national consensus”[ix] on foreign policy. The BJS’s constant hammering on foreign policy being driven by India’s interests and national cohesion is representative of the cultural realist approach.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), inherits the ideology of Savarkar from BJS, its ideological and political forefather. Party leaders like Jaswant Singh argued that Nehruvian type pacifism and idealism have led to a narrative that has directed “India’s strategic culture into all kinds of absurdities”[x]. The BJP is vociferously of the view that Nehruvian ideals paint a pacifist picture of India’s strategic culture[xi]. Furthermore, such ideals are misleading as they belittle the importance of India’s historical epics and disquisitions like the Mahabharata and Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Strategists like Bakshi strongly concur with the viewpoint and argue that these ancient treatises represent “the essence of Indian military mind”[xii]. India’s wholehearted adoption of pacifism represents a perversion of means adopted in pursuit of the original intended outcome.
The cultural realists, despite being more multifaceted than its ideological other, fell short in terms of giving importance to amassing material capabilities. Its inheritors, the BJP, also needs to differentiate between Savarkar’s non-religious and amoral idea of Hindu-ness, and the religious connotations that Savarkar’s ideas has in contemporary times. While Savarkar was crystal clear about the distinction between Hindu-ness and the Hindu religion, religion often vitiates the narrative in Savarkar’s current interpretation. This gap needs, in the current context, an acknowledgment in order to further improve the application of the multi-faceted foreign policy philosophy emanating from the rungs of cultural realists.
Indian foreign policy needs a marriage of cultural realism with classical realism. The latter shall provide the fillip to amassing material resources while the former will be instrumental in the creation of a culturally binding consensus on foreign policy. Such a consensus, however, needs to acknowledge the importance of an agile foreign policy that can rapidly adapt to ever changing geopolitical realities. Indian foreign policy needs to get over the Nehruvian hangover and get a glass of Gangajal for reinvigoration.
[i] Sreeram Chaulia, “BJP, India’s Foreign Policy and the “Realist Alternative” to the Nehruvian Tradition”, International Politics, vol. 39, 2002, pp. 215-234.
[ii] Sreeram Chaulia, “BJP, India’s Foreign Policy and the “Realist Alternative” to the Nehruvian Tradition”, International Politics, vol. 39, 2002, pp. 215-234.
[iii] Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Empire: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire (London, Cambridge and Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011).
[iv] Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Empire: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire (London, Cambridge and Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011).
[v] Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Empire: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire (London, Cambridge and Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011).
[vi] R. Sagar, “‘Jiski Lathi, Uski Bhains,’ The Hindu Nationalist View of International Politics,” in K. Bajpai, S. Basit, and V. Krishnappa, eds. India’s Grand Strategy: History, Theory, Cases (London: Routledge, 2014), p.237.
[vii] Balraj Madhok, “India’s Foreign Policy-The Jana Sangh View”, India Quarterly, vol. 23, 1: pp. 3-7.
[viii] Balraj Madhok, “India’s Foreign Policy-The Jana Sangh View”, India Quarterly, vol. 23, 1: pp. 3-7.
[ix] Balraj Madhok, “India’s Foreign Policy-The Jana Sangh View”, India Quarterly, vol. 23, 1: pp. 3-7.
[x] Jaswant Singh, Defending India (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 13.
[xi] Jaswant Singh, Defending India (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 13.
[xii] G.D. Bakshi, Mahabharata: A Military Analysis (Delhi: Lancer International, 1990), p. xix.