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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Remembering the Nehruvian foreign policy and its relevance today | P.S. Jayaramu

Saturday 19 November 2022


by P.S. Jayaramu

November 15, 2022

Only a few days ago, the national observed Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary. At a time when there are animated discussions going on within the political class about the contribution ( or the lack of it) to Indian foreign policy and external relations, it is useful to take as detached a view as far as possible about the issue.

Irrespective of the positions taken by the political leaders in contemporary India, it is pertinent to recognise that India’s role in world affairs preceded independence.The Indian National Congress (INC) which led the freedom movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi had created a Cell to express its position on the various issues dealt with by the British who were controlling the destinies of India at that time. Quite appropriately, Nehru was put incharge of conducting the activities of the Cell in view of his vast exposure to international affairs. In order to expound the Congress’s position, the INC passed resolutions from time to time. One of the earliest of such resolutions was the one moved by Nehru opposing the annexation of Upper Burma by the British and the spread of its imperial hold over Egypt and other Asian -African nations. In 1926, Nehru toured Italy, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Germany and Russia to give expositions about the INC’s stand on international affairs.

In February 1927, Nehru attended the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels as the official delegate of the INC and made a strong speech expressing opposition to imperialism. He also attended the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Socialist Revolution in Moscow. In 1928, Nehru founded the ‘Independence for India League’ which advocated the total severance of the British connection over India. In continuation of the Congress stand, during the Second World War, Nehru took the lead in expressing the Congress’s opposition to the war by upping the ante for Indian independence. Though the British Government made no promise directly to grant independence to India, the fact remains that the end of the War hastened the process of Indian independence. Suffice it to say, the Congress under Nehru laid the foundations of Indian foreign policy which was manifestly in opposition to imperialism, Colonialism and Racialism. These goals were practised with greater vigour after India became independent.

Another key aspect of Nehruvian foreign policy was its opposition to wars which was demonstrated by the untold misery the Second World War had caused to humankind. Hence, when the Cold War started between the US and USSR, accompanied by their efforts to erect structures of military alliances in the form of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Nehru strongly refused to get sucked into what he described as ’entangling alliances.’ He articulated the need for India following the nonaligned path as its strategy for the conduct of foreign policy.

The decision to arrange Asian Relations Conferences in 1947 and 1949 bore testimony to India’s decision to not only conduct an independent foreign policy but, more importantly to project an Asian-African approach to the conduct of international affairs. Nehru’s India played a proactive role in the convening of the Asian Relations Conference at Bandung, (Indonesia) in 1956. The efforts culminated in the organisation of the first conference of the nonaligned nations in 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, under the leadership of Marshall Tito. Nonalignment was criticised by the Western leaders as staying neutral in its crusade against Communism and Socialism. But, it is heartening to note that Jawaharlal Nehru brushed aside the criticism that nonalignment was neutrality. In defence of nonalignment, on several occasions, Nehru declared that “when freedom was in peril and under attack, India will not and shall not stay neutral”. His position on the Hungarian crisis when Soviet troops marched in there in 1956 and the decision earlier during the Korean crisis and the way India participated in the UN-sponsored efforts to arrive at an armistice can be recalled as illustrations of India’s nonaligned role in international conflict situations. It is also important to underline the fact that the Nehru-led policy of nonalignment also carried with it a strong pacifist orientation. His opposition to nuclear arms race between the United States and the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other can be understood by the series of letters he wrote to the American and Soviet leaders to ban nuclear testing and initiate talks for eventually moving in the direction of nuclear disarmament. It is unfortunate that Nehru’s calls went largely unheeded as the Super powers were engrossed in a steady nuclear weapons race. But, when the United Sates and the other nuclear weapon states agreed to enter into a Partial Test-ban Treaty ( PTBT) in 1963, as a pacifist Nehru described the decision as a small step possibly in the direction of complete and total nuclear disarmament, which, however, has remained a mirage. Not only did the nuclear arms race prevailed during the Cold War era, but the drive to maintain ‘nuclear supremacy’ has continued to be the cardinal goal of the United States after the disintegration of the USSR and the end of Cold War. The ongoing Ukraine war and the talk of Russia possibly using tactical nuclear weapons and apprehensions about China using its nuclear strength to brow beat Taiwan and possibly pose threats to her territorial integrity only goes to expose strongly the hallowness of the arguments of the nuclear weapon states (the P-5) that nuclear weapons are safe in their hands and not in the hands of third world states and and ‘tin pot dictators’.

Nehru’s pro-third world and pacifist approach to foreign policy led to his soft approach to China and the signing of the Panchasheel agreement with it and his support for a rightful place for Communist China in the international architecture and head table. Clearly, it was Nehru’s strong pacifist orientation vis-a-vis China that blinded his eye to the brewing militarist machinations of Comminist China towards India, finally leading to the Chinese aggression in 1962. There are some writings to show that Nehru broadly understood the power challenge from China, but failed to perceive its military dimension. But, such explanations are often treated as laboured arguments put forward by Nehru’s apologists. In any case, corrections in India’s China policy were initiated and carried forward by his successors from Indira Gandhi to contemporary leaders.

It was also his pacifist orientation and believe in the United Nations that led Nehru to take the Kashmir dispute to the world body. But, he realised in course of time that the UN also reflected the power realities as manifested by the pro-Pakistan leanings of the Wester powers. In any case, during his times, pacifism prevailed over pragmatism and hard-boiled thinking !

It is however the contemporary international situations marked by developments like the Ukraine conflict, India’s time-tested relations with Russia, the eagerness of the United States to use the Ukraine situation to strongly contain and encircle Russia that has led to a rediscovery of the relevance of the Nehruvian approach to the conduct of foreign policy. That has made the Mody government to assert its independence in the conduct of an independent foreign policy. The same is evident in the adroit, yet learned and professional manner in which indian diplomacy is being conducted by the seasoned foreign minister Dr. Subrahmanya Jaishankar. So much so, both the western and Russian leaders recognise the potential role that India can play to help find a diplomatic solution to the Ukranian war which is affecting not only Ukraine, but the world at large.The only beneficiaries of the ongoing war are the weapons manufacturers and the defence lobbies.

India is also aware of the overall military-strategic challenge from China. And to meet that challenge also, the indian leadership has realised the limits of going along with the United States while maintaining its strategic relationship the American establishment. The title of Dr. Jaishankar’s book “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World”, written y him before he became the foreign minister seems to be ably guiding him in the conduct of our foreign policy. It only goes to explain the continued relevance of the Nehruvian way of handling foreign policy.

(Author: Dr. P.S Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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