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India’s foreign policy: Nehru’s enduring legacy

Any discussion or study on India’s foreign policy must inevitably come to terms with the extraordinary legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Even more demanding is the challenge of disentangling Nehru’s contributions from the unending current political contestations as India’s first prime minister.

Nehru’s countless admirers and critics, however, seem to agree on one thing: that Nehru was an ‘idealist’ in the conduct of India’s international relations. Breaking this consensus probably holds the key to a better appreciation of Nehru’s contributions to India’s international engagement. Andrew B. Kennedy, in his contribution to the Oxford Handbook on Indian Foreign Policy, argues that realism and idealism were joined at the hip in Nehru’s worldview.

Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As the Congress Party’s most influential voice on foreign affairs in the run up to independence and its chief diplomat for the first 17 years of the republic, Nehru said and did things that do not fall neatly into one box. Nehru’s understanding of the world went through multiple phases and his eclectic mind struggled to reconcile competing ideas. No assessment of the policies of a statesman, who deals with so many real world challenges over an extended period, can be reduced into a single category of thought.

To be sure, idealism was a strong component of Nehru’s world view. That could be said of many leaders in the colonial world who came of age in the period between the two world wars. Nehru was critical of power politics and called for transcending them through collective security arrangements and strong international institutions. For Nehru, “One World” was an important national goal for India.

At the same time Nehru also embraced the idea of Indian primacy in the Subcontinent. He mused about an Indian “Monroe Doctrine” for Asia and the Indian Ocean. If his use of force to liberate Goa from Portuguese colonial rule drew much criticism from the West, his approach to the border dispute with China is seen in Beijing as the source of unending trouble in Sino-Indian relations.

We must see Nehru as a legatee of two very different streams of thought in the middle of 20th century. One was inherited from the extended Indian national movement, where the ‘idealist’ currents and ‘moralpolitik’ were rampant. The other was the diplomatic legacy of the British Raj, which was rooted in India’s geopolitical imperatives. While the Raj was not an independent actor on the world stage, it had considerable autonomy in devising India’s policies especially in dealing with the neighborhood in Asia and the Indian Ocean.

As the successor state to the Raj, Nehru incorporated many elements of its regional policy into that of India. Consider, for example, the first three bilateral treaties that Nehru signed—with Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal during 1949-50. All three reiterated the essence of the treaties that the Raj had signed with the three Himalayan kingdoms—that Calcutta (and Delhi) would protect them from external threats in return for a say on their foreign policy.

Nehru’s decision to continue the protectorate arrangements in the Himalayas also reflected the perceived need to balance the power of the newly unified China that took control of Tibet. Nehru forswore the option to simply annex these kingdoms into India, a proposition that those on his right in the Congress party might have wanted.

All the while Nehru was making friendly gestures to Beijing and championing liberal internationalist causes on the world stage. When relations with China began to break down in the late 1950s, Nehru laid the foundation for an enduring defense relationship with Soviet Russia and reached out to the United States for a security partnership.

If the Congress can’t claim exclusive ownership of Nehru, the BJP will not be able to eliminate Nehru’s impact on India’s international policies. Narendra Damodardas Modi is probably the most ‘non-Nehruvian’ Prime minister that India has had so far. Yet Modi sustains some tenets of Nehru’s international relations despite the conscious effort to differentiate himself from the first Prime Minister.

If ‘non-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’ are seen as the essence of Nehru’s foreign policy tradition, Modi has refused to pay obeisance to either idea in his surprisingly intense international engagement.  Modi’s main emphasis, instead, has been on making India a ‘leading power’.

However, seeking international leadership, despite India’s weak hand in the middle of the 20th century, was at the core of Nehru’s foreign policy. Nehru believed India was destined to become among a handful of great powers shaping the global order.  Others on his list were America, Russia, China, Japan and a (unified) Europe.

Modi’s focus on restoring India’s South Asian dominance seems no different from Nehru’s emphasis on securing Delhi’s primacy in the region and limiting the role of other powers in the Subcontinent. Modi’s attempt to rejuvenate India’s Asian engagement, in the name of an ‘Act East’ policy, harks back to the centrality that Nehru attached to Asia in the early years of India’s foreign policy.

Modi’s new emphasis on taking a larger role in the security affairs of Asia and Indian Ocean emulates Nehru’s interest in seeking a role for Indian armed forces on the global stage. If the British Raj was the main security provider in the Indian Ocean and contributed significantly to the two world wars, Nehru sought to continue that tradition in a very interesting way.

Despite the problems on the borders with Pakistan and China, Nehru chose to contribute to international peacekeeping operations. That tradition has cumulatively made India the largest contributor to peace operations under the aegis of the United Nations. Nehru also sought to develop interesting defense partnerships with Egypt and Indonesia, India’s collaborators in shaping the politics of non-alignment.

Headline image: National Flag of India by Sanyam Bahga. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. priyanka

    The information u gave is good but not clearly explained…it’s too confusing

  2. Sam Wilson

    Nehru had approached US just after becoming PM to garner support for Indian industry but was disappointed as the US did not see India in the scheme of foreign policy yet and was suspicious of Nehru. Hence Nehru turned next to the Soviet Union and was welcomed like a brother. Russians have been the primary support base for India and continue to remain so through thick and thin of political changes.

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