Reconsidering Nehru’s Foreign Policy Legacy


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The birth of the Indian republic is not yet distant enough a memory for Indians for the hagiographies – or polemics – to stop. Few figures exemplify this more than Jawaharlal Nehru, perhaps the most iconic figure of the young republic. As the longest serving prime minister too, Nehru’s policies have left an indelible imprint on Indian politics. Although Nehru’s legacy has started to erode in some sectors like the economy, they remain a visible framework in others such as foreign policy – only recently did an Indian policy research group come out with a publication titled, Non-Alignment 2.0. Recollecting Hubert Humphrey’s characterisation of foreign policy as domestic policy with its hat on, the Nehruvian grip on Indian thinking is nowhere clearer.

Nehru began to shape India’s relations with the world even before independence. As the vice president in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, formed in September 1946, Nehru was responsible for India’s foreign affairs. The future prime minister – and foreign minister, for Nehru held that portfolio too – outlined his worldview as the head of the interim government of India. The September 26, 1946 edition of The Statesman reported Nehru as saying, “India will follow an independent policy, avoiding power politics.” In an interview given to the Hindustan Times around the same time, Nehru asserted, “we shall be friends and we intend cooperation with America. We intend cooperation fully with the Soviet Union.” Friendship towards the Communist powers was essential as was friendship towards all powers, but it is not a friendship that springs from mutual understanding through sympathetic ideologies.


Whether by design or accident, Nehru’s non-alignment was cast as moralpolitik in a world of atompolitik: here was a brave, new India refusing to prioritise the great global struggle over the fundamental needs of her own impoverished masses. Many hailed India’s foreign policy principles as a powerful moral force for peace within the United Nations. As Nehru reported to the Constituent Assembly, “they respected us much more, because they realised that we had some kind of an independent policy and that we were not going to be dragooned this way or that way.” India’s focus on diplomacy rather than military strength was showcased as a different approach to the chaotic machtpolitik world of international relations. Initially, it seemed that India was practicing what it preached. Nehru referred the crisis with Pakistan to a newly formed international organisation known as the United Nations, and it became the second non-communist country to recognise the Communist takeover of China. However, this morality on Nehru’s part might have been nothing more than pragmatism. As Henry Kissinger once stated, moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative. The Indian prime minister was a man without options: in a letter to the Burmese prime minister, Thakin Nu, Nehru explained, “there [was] not much choice left in the matter and the facts of the situation [led] only to one conclusion,” that the government of Communist China must be recognised…of course, however friendly we may be outwardly, there are inner conflicts and frictions and suspicion of each other.” As he explained to his friends in London, “Recognition does not involve approval of [China’s] policy…it is only a recognition of a political…fact, to ignore which is only to court embarrassment.” After the Chinese annexation of Tibet, Nehru observed with regret, “We cannot be happy to have a strong, centralised and Communist government in control of the Tibetan border with India and yet there are no obvious means of stopping this.”

Nehru was greatly disturbed at the developments in China, Burma, Tibet, Malaya, and even South Asia. India even supplied what financial and material support it could to the Burmese government against communist-supported groups such as the Red Flag Communist Party, the Communist Party of Burma, the People’s Volunteer Organization, and the Karen National Union. However, he was also aware that much of the communist insurgency in the region was anti-imperialist rather than anti-Western. The Marshall Plan, for example, was helping the French and Dutch maintain their control over Indochina and Indonesia, only strengthening the Communist cause. For a country that had just shrugged off the chains of imperialism, India could not countenance Western policies in Asia either. Finally, when India did recognise China, it was in close coordination with the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries.

Serendipitously for Nehru, the United States and Britain saw India as a vital piece on the global chessboard board and did not want to write the South Asian country off just yet. It was perhaps this Western attitude more than non-alignment that enabled India to obtain developmental assistance from both, the Western and Communist blocs. Although the Soviet Union set up the steel plants at Bhilai and Bokaro, it was West German assistance behind the Rourkela Steel and Fertilizer Plant and the Durgapur Power Sation. The British tried to persuade the Americans that Nehru’s orientation was essentially pro-Western and urged that he should gain economic and military aid from the United States. In Sir Archibald Nye’s view, American aid was crucial to India, “for without it, the development of this impoverished sub-continent into an effective bastion against Communism [was] impossible.” Washington, however, was not pleased that “India was making no contribution to the solution of world problems…and that Nehru displayed little sense of the practical realm.” Similarly, India played an important role in the Soviet plan to foster good will in the newly liberated countries of the Third World.


Nehru’s morality was triggered by yet another stark reality: capability. This was primarily exhibited in India’s reluctance to use force in her immediate neighbourhood or even in international policing action such as in Korea. However much an idealist and a dreamer Nehru was, he was under no illusion of his new country’s capabilities. He sought to stay out of military pacts because he did not wish to incur an excessive burden of militarisation upon a fragile economy. If India had to “make full provision for [an attack],” Nehru wrote to his chief ministers, “this would cast an intolerable burden on us, financial and otherwise, and it would weaken our general defence position. There are limits beyond which we cannot go at least for some years.” In a meeting with his intelligence staff in 1952, Nehru said, “a hostile frontier with China alone would mean expenditure of all Indian resources just to defend it.” In a speech to Parliament in March 1954, Nehru admitted candidly that “India is backward in…industries, modern weaponry, etc. [India] cannot compete…in these areas.” In the late 1950s as tensions with China ran high, when a bombastic Jan Sangh Member of Parliament declared that he could have over a hundred thousand men on the border overnight, Nehru scathingly asked with what the honourable member intended to clothe or arm the men. Nehru also surmised that the United States and the United Kingdom were only interested in embarrassing China in the international community and did not truly care about the interests of Asians in Tibet, Burma, Korea, or India. Therefore, any appeal in the United Nations might fail, and India would not want to challenge China if it could not hope to win the challenge.

Critics have always been suspicious about Nehru’s motives for non-alignment, especially since it dovetailed with his Fabian socialist views and a condescension towards the American way. Nehru’s own predilections followed him into his job, of course. As one US ambassador to India wrote of the Indian Prime Minister, “Nehru has had an anti-American bias since his school days in England. There he obtained the idea that the United Sates was an overgrown, blundering, uncultured, and somewhat crass nation, and that Americans in general were an ill-mannered and immature people, more interested in such toys as could be produced by modern technique and in satisfaction of their creature comforts than in endeavouring to understanding great moral and social trends of this age.” More damning is Nehru’s unequal application of non-alignment – as the United States was quick to point out, Nehru leapt to condemn Britain and France when they invaded Egypt in coordination with Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956 but failed to bring the same vigour to its delayed reprobation of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary almost simultaneously.

In a manner, Nehru’s heterogeneous non-aligned principles exculpate his own understanding of the concept. To him, non-alignment was a way of putting Indian interests above those of the Soviet Union or the Western alliance. Non-alignment was neither neutral nor an abdication from responsibility, and Nehru bristled at the implication that his neutrality was a desire to escape world obligations: “We are not going to join a war if we can help it,” Nehru told the Lok Sabha, “and we are going to join the side which is to our interest when the time comes to make the choice.” Under domestic moral pressure from Jayaprakash Narayan, when Nehru did criticise the Soviet Union on its heavy handedness in Hungary, Moscow promptly abstained from a UN Security Council resolution that declared the results of elections in Indian-administered Kashmir as null and void instead of vetoing it. India’s non-aligned tilt towards Moscow, then, was possibly more pragmatic than ideological. As Kissinger wrote in a 1994 essay in Foreign Affairs, “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”


Nehru also pushed the development of science and technology in his foreign policy in a manner that has not been seen until only very recently. He reached out to developed countries for assistance in nuclear, space, and industrial technology. The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was set up with American help and the hundreds of launches from the site by the Russia, United States, and European countries provided India valuable expertise in telemetry, tracking, and other ballistic operations. India also embraced US president Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace programme, absorbing whatever expertise was available from a growingly taciturn international nuclear environment for its own purposes. India also played a constructive role in disarmament negotiations and nuclear proliferation control. Although Indian fears on these issues were brushed aside in the 1960s, those same problems continue to plague international relations to this day. In some ways, Nehru was a man ahead of his time – or perhaps, as a leader of a lesser power, he could afford to listen to scientists’ warnings.

The defeat to China in the Himalayas in 1962 threw all of Nehru’s grand theories and gestures into question. Then, as now, the prime minister’s critics simply wanted to know what use Nehru’s diplomacy had been when it could not protect India in its most critical hour. This is a fair question but one that has no easy answers. Nehru’s foreign policy gave India stature on the world stage, as the country was invited to participate in fora such as the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission to supervise the truce and facilitate prisoner exchange after the Korean War and the International Control Commission set similar tasks after the First Indochina War. India’s mediatory role in the Suez Crisis and its prominence at the Bandung conference of new Asian and African states gave the country an international presence. After Bandung, John Foster Dulles had even remarked that “it was better to lose an ally like Thailand than a neutral like India.” However, it is not clear how this soft power helped India where it mattered – the economy and national security. The non-aligned states were mostly too poor themselves to contribute to the Indian economy, and more harshly, did not even utter a word in support of India during the 1962 Himalayan war; not even the Soviet Union came to India’s defence. Even granting the nobility of the main planks of Nehruvian foreign policy – anti-imperialism, disarmament, and peace – it was of no avail to India in the final reckoning.

The Chinese debacle occurred towards the end of Nehru’s premiership and it left him a broken man. Sadly, the geopolitical winds had not favoured the prime minister. Nearly two centuries under British rule had left India economically, socially, and militarily weak. Nor were any of India’s leaders relentless dictators, willing to subject her citizens to even more privation in order to rapidly build a powerful military. When invasion came, it was not even because Nehru had failed in his strategy but because of something entirely unrelated: documents declassified over the past decade in Chinese and Eastern European archives indicate that Beijing’s primary purpose for bringing India to heel was to establish its primacy in the Sino-Soviet struggle for the leadership of world communism. By humiliating a Soviet ally, China would be able to subtly demonstrate to other communist countries that the Soviet Union was more intent on detente with the Americans than being a revolutionary power. Nehru’s correspondence with American officials show that he had foreseen this wrinkle in Sino-Soviet relations in the mid-1950s but had not expected it to be so severe, come so quickly, or, indeed, be its innocent victim. Without the Soviet catalyst, disputes over the MacMahon Line would have continued to plague Indo-Chinese relations but might not have come to a boil so soon, if at all. In fact, relations between the two Asian giants had genuinely seemed to hold potential until the late 1950s – China had even sent India a million tonnes of foodgrains in 1951 to help stave off famine.

More substantially, India had nowhere else to turn. The United States, for all its wooing of India, was not interested in a strategic relationship. American officials posted to India were clearly instructed to persuade Delhi over to the Western cause but make no commitments in return. The United States would have been happy to enlist India as an ally but was willing to settle for the country not going over to the Communist bloc. According to US calculations, a Marshall Plan for India would have to be far larger than the one Europe was offered and Washington could not afford to make such an investment in a secondary theatre of the Cold War. Nehru’s prickliness towards Americans did not persuade them either to make any additional efforts to see if India could be accommodated.


None of this is to suggest that Nehru was merely the subject of world forces. He did make mistakes in his assessments of others, that the new countries of Asia and Africa might be driven not just by anti-imperialism as Nehru was but also by nationalism or other motives. Nehru repeatedly spoke of a shared Asian heritage, which, to him, meant ancient greatness, the trauma of colonialism, and a new nationalism. There was no room for renewed regional and ethnic rivalries to surface. This led Nehru downplay the differences between the members of the coalition he tried to lead, leaving India alone in its greatest moment of crisis since independence.

Nehru also grievously underestimated the importance China attached to India’s support in diplomatic matters. India’s perceived political and moral power were seen by Nehru as promising protection from any hostile neighbour – it would be unthinkable to enrage the Soviet and American alliances, as well as the Third World. Additionally, since 1957, the Soviets had begun to support India on Kashmir in the United Nations. China had seemed least likely to risk global condemnation, and “common wisdom held that acceptance in the United Nations was essential for China.” Nehru had erroneously assumed that the existence of a Third World bloc with India in a position of leadership was in the interest of both major powers.

Another error on Nehru’s part was the refusal to accept a seat on the United Nations Security Council before one was offered to China. He wrote to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then the Indian ambassador to the United States, “India…is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council, but we are not going in at the cost of China.” Nehru interpreted the offer from Washington as a stratagem to divide Asian countries and bring suspicion and rivalry between India and China. Although it is difficult to say how a place on the UNSC might have helped India in 1962, the position would have at least allowed India to act without fear of a veto – or lack thereof – on important resolutions in the Security Council. This strategic blunder cost India then and continues to do so to this day.

Though Washington did not approve of Nehru’s methods, they understood his game plan. A State Department communiqué in the mid-1950s observed that Nehru was pursuing a policy that would ring the periphery of China with a buffer of neutral states and that in was in the security interests of India that these states continue to remain outside the Communist Chinese sphere of influence. In early 1962, Thailand had approached India with a proposition – it would leave the US-led security pact in the region if India would guarantee her security against China. Bangkok was particularly worried about communist infiltration and the “Thai Autonomous Region” established in the Yunnan province of southern China. Delhi was evasive as Nehru was aware of the futility of such guarantees in the face of a preponderance of Chinese power in the region. After India’s defeat in the mountains, Bangkok rescinded its proposal, arguing that India cannot be expected to defend Thai interests if it cannot protect its own. India’s failure to emerge as a provider of economic and security benefits hastened the collapse of its foreign policy that had been until 1962 held together with only soft power.

In the final evaluation, Nehru emerges as neither hero nor villain…just human. Indian foreign policy could have undoubtedly been conducted better but it operated within the restraints of a weak military and economy, US unwillingness to make a serious commitment to Asian security, and Sino-Soviet rivalry. Of course, it also functioned within the parameters acceptable to the psychology of a newly decolonised nation and Nehru’s own social and economic inclinations. Yet Nehru’s foreign policy will be judged only by the outcome, and whether Nehru is guilty or not, it is only he who is responsible.

This article first appeared in the November 2015 print edition of Swarajya.


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