The more I hear the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, the more I am convinced that India’s foreign policy continues to be moored to Nehruvian approaches to negotiating with the global powers. Jaishankar characterises the Nehruvian foreign policy (1946–62) as the “era of optimistic non-alignment,” where the objective was to strengthen India’s sovereignty, integrity and economy. The “parallel goal” was to place India as the vanguard of third world solidarity (MEA 2019b).
Laced with rhetorical flourishes, Jaishankar is sounding more and more like Jawaharlal Nehru. At the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue, he said, “India owes it to be a just power, fair power, standard-bearer for the global voice of south” (Bagchi 2020), clearly signalling that India has not abandoned the Nehruvian love to lead the South.
Asserting the independence of his foreign policy, Jaishankar almost mimicked Nehru’s nationalist exhortations, when he told Der Spiegel,
I find the idea of being someone else’s pawn in some ‘Great Game’ terribly condescending. I certainly don’t plan to play the counterweight to other people. I’m in it because of my own ambitions. (MEA 2019a)
Jaishankar’s assertions are a little surprising because he is considered to be no big fan of either non-alignment or strategic autonomy, the twin lynchpins of Nehru’s foreign policy to deal with the superpowers. Why is Jaishankar covering up India’s tight embrace of America in nationalist colours? We are already in a strategic relationship withthe United States (US), then why deny that we are serving the American strategic needs? Prime Minister Narendra Modi confidently declared at theUS Congress in 2016 that the Indo–US “relationship has overcome the hesitations ofhistory” (George 2019: 57) indicatingthat unlike Nehru, he was not bound by any historical compulsions to appear distant from America.
Perhaps, Jaishankar understands better than Modi that till the West continues to dominate global affairs, the Nehruvian influence on India’s foreign policy will always remain, no matter how hard the Bharatiya Janata Party may try to distance itself from Nehru. This is because Nehru’s foreign policy was rooted in the liberal international order. His belief in“one world” and the United Nations’ (UN) ability to usher an era of peace was a by-product of his commitment to the post-war American order. Therefore, there was an element of deception in Nehru’s quest of non-alignment, which Ram Manohar Lohia said was
not neutral but as one of alternate service to both camps … One minister of this government clings to the United States, another to Russia and the magician tries to hold the balance by his charm. They call this non-alignment. (Wofford 2001: 25)
Posture and Policy
Did Nehru really live in an imaginary world, where he conceived maintaining equidistance from the two power blocs in a highly polarised post-war world? Overt alignment with the US was not considered conducive for a country of India’s size and geostrategic location. India could not afford to look like Pakistan or the Philippines by joining the US bloc.
At a time when the Indian nationalism was based on its opposition to the West, it was difficult for Nehru to align withAmerica, the leader of the capitalist West and weaken the spirit of nationalism in the country. For the West, it was important that the first postcolonial nation that subscribed to the Western liberal democracy emerged as a model for the newly independent Afro–Asian countries. Indian nationalism was strengthand any alignment with the SovietUnion was not possible because the diehard anti-communist ruling elite would never have allowed Nehru to make India a Soviet satellite.
Much of our problem in understanding Nehru emerges from the fact that we take him at face value. Most of our analysis is based on what Nehru said rather than what he practised. Nehru projected himself as an idealist and a socialist, and we simply believe him. His efforts at Bandung and Belgrade are often used to paint his foreign policy objectives. However, what happened prior to the Bandung Conference of 1955 and in the period between Bandung and Belgrade, the venue for the first non-aligned summit in 1961, is often ignored in our analysis.
In the late 1940s, Nehru’s belief in non-alignment was wavering; he was not averse to open military alignment with theUS. Immediately, on taking over, Nehru was confronted with the developing military situation in Kashmir. Nehru’s detractors often blame him for not seeking a military solution in Kashmir andfor taking the issue to the UN. However, the facts dug out from American archives, by late M S Venkataramani, the renowned professor of American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, reveal a very different story. Less than six months into independence, Nehru initiated action to buy arms for the Indian Army. So keen was Nehru to build India’s military capability that he bypassed Asaf Ali, India’s ambassador to theUS and directed Colonel BM Kaul (who subsequently became the Lieutenant General in the early 1960s), India’s defence attaché at Washington, to initiate the arms purchase process (Venkataramani 1999).
Nehru did not have much faith in Ali, who was certainly not his choice to be India’s first ambassador to America. Ali was probably rewarded by the British for his services to the Crown during World WarII.
Nehru preferred Kaul to Ali becausethe latter was considered to be a laggard,and Kaul, according to K Subrahmanyam, was better networked with Louis Johnson and other influential Americans. On27 January 1948, Kaul metColonel J Garling, in-charge of the foreign military representatives, and requested him to arrange the delivery of 1,000 jeeps and adozen B-25 Mitchell bombers by May 1948 and another 31 bombers subsequently (Subrahmanyam 2005). Kaul failed to impress the Americans. Their indifference led the Indian government to send placatory signals to the Truman administration and assure them that Nehru’sadherence to neutralism was not dogmatic.
Aligning with the US
In April 1948, Girija Shankar Bajpai, India’s secretary general in the Ministry of External Affairs, conveyed to Washington that under no circumstances would India align itself with the Soviet Union in a war between the two superpowers. Bajpai also proposed sending an Indian military mission to the US to explore the possibility of obtaining military equipment. In September 1948, Nehru reassured the Americans that there was no chance of India lining up behind the Soviet Union. Despite clarifications, America refused to lift the arms embargo on India and Pakistan (imposed in the wake of the outbreak of the Kashmir conflict). India renewed its efforts to procure arms by sending H M Patel, defence secretary, to the US. However, Patel too returned empty-handed. Despite American refusal to sell arms to India, Nehru never attempted to reach out to Joseph Stalin for either arms or wheat. In March 1949, after the Kashmir issue subsided, the US lifted the arms embargo and India received one division of Sherman tanks (of World War II vintage) from the US (Venkataramani 1999).
America was as cussed in delivering arms as it was in exporting wheat toIndia. And, this was when the Indian mines met 25% of the American manganese requirement, and also fed beryl and monazite, two crucial minerals, for their nuclear programme. The Sovietentry into the Indian foreign policy matrix happened mainly after Stalin’s death. This was no act of disloyalty by Nehru against Anglo–American interests. The post-Stalin phase in international politics wasmarked by a thaw in East–West relations.In 1955, when Nehru visited Moscow, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was building bridges with the West, visiting Western capitals, discussing peace anddisarmament. TheUS–Soviet detente gave Nehru the leeway to project his policy of non-alignment.
However, this window of opportunity closed in 1957, when India was hit by the foreign exchange crisis and was forced to go to the World Bank for a bailoutpackage to save its Second Five-Year Plan.Another reason that drew India closer to theUS was the growing political turmoil in Tibet. TheUS launched covert operations inside Chinese territory using Kalimpong as the launch pad.
In 1959, India’s decision to give asylum to the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters from Lhasa appeased America, but jeopardised its relations with China. Nehru’s luck favoured him. His overt alignment with theUS against China was not opposed by the Soviets, as Khrushchev was busy visiting Washington in 1959. The changes in the Cold War dynamicsallowed Nehru’s foreign policy to retain its non-alignment facade. The us acknowledged India’s contribution by approving the grant of the Development Loan Fund (DLF).
At the end of December 1960, India got $30 million for Hindustan Chemicals and Fertilisers to cover the foreign exchange cost of building a fertiliser plant at Trombay. This was followed by a $50 million loan at an interest rate of 5.75% to enable the purchase of capital equipment from the US to meet the development goals envisaged in the Third Five-Year Plan. This marked the golden period in Indo–US ties. In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower visited India and was accorded a thunderous welcome. He spoke at a public rally at Ramlila Maidan and also addressed the parliamentarians. The visit emboldened the predominantly pro-American political class in India to work more vigorously to curtail Nehru’s ability to manoeuvre vis-à-vis China and push him on a warpath.
Nehru’s “forward policy,” which was used as a pretext by China to declare war against India, was a clear indication that Nehru’s foreign policy was indeed adventurous, radical, energetic and probably as pro-America as India’s current foreign policy under Modi. One only hopes that the adventurous foreign policy does not lead towards another frivolous war that would keep the region divided and borders closed for another half a decade.
There are far too many similarities between Nehru and Modi’s foreign policy. Both are tethered to the liberal international order, erected and led by America. If Nehru promoted the Ford Foundation, the symbol of American soft power, in India, Modi is not far behind in advancing American corporate philanthropic organisations.Modi may be opposed to the presence of Ford Foundation in India, but he is very comfortable in receiving the Global Goalkeeper Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which caters as much toUS foreign policy goals as the Ford Foundation does. While the Ford Foundation’s founder symbolised the second industrial revolution and the advance of American century, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is driven by one of the leading figures of the fourth industrial revolution, and is deeply engaged in promoting the American technological hegemony.
In the 1950s, America wanted to project India as a counterweight to China, and in 2020, America sees India playing a similar role. In the late 1950s, the Indian elite stood behind the US, forced the Indian government to apply maximum pressure on China, but remained completely oblivious to the consequences of its actions.
When the US was ruled by New Dealers promoting liberal democracy, we had Nehru who was a diehard liberal and New Dealer. Now, when right-wing populists dominate American politics, we have an authoritarian right-wing leader in India. Therefore, irrespective of political changes in the US, India is likely to remain an American ally.
However, one still hopes that the Indian political as well as foreign policy elite will be more aware of the American grand strategy that is adept at instigating and using limited wars in the peripheries to further establish its hegemony.
Bagchi, Indrani (2020): “India Holds the Mirror to Its Critics,” Times of India, 16 January.
Bhardwaj, Atul (2019): “India–America Relations (1942–62),” Rooted in Liberal International Order, Routledge: London.
George, Varghese K (2019): Open Embrace: India–US Ties in the Age of Modi and Trump, Penguin: Viking.
MEA (2019a): “EAM’s Interview to Der Spiegel,” 19 November,https://mea.gov.in/interviews.htm?dtl/32052/EAMs_interview_to_Der_Spiegel, viewed on 10 January 2020.
— (2019b): “External Affairs Minister’s Speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture,” 14 November,https://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/32038/External+Affairs+Ministers+speech+at+the+4th+Ramnath+Goenka+Lecture+2019, viewed on 10 January 2020.
Subrahmanyam, K (2005): “Arms and Politic,” Strategic Analysis, Vol 21, No 1.
Wofford, Harris (2001): Lohia and America Meet—1951 and 1964, New Delhi: BR Publishing.
Venkataramani, M S (1999): “An Elusive Military Relationship, Part II,” Frontline, 23 April.
Author: Atul Bhardwaj (