Dynamics of India’s Changing Foreign Policy – Challenges & Prospects – II

Part II

Dynamics of India’s Foreign Policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

‘Nehruvian’ phase would be an apt description of India’s foreign policy from 1947 to May 1964, when he passed away because it bore the stamp of Pandit Nehru’s idealism and world view in the post world war II bipolar configuration of global power meaning rivalry between USA and USSR and the imperatives of economic and social development of India in the backdrop of the unfinished struggle for freedom of Afro-Asian peoples from western colonial rule and the influence of communist and socialist ideology. The rise of PRC in 1950 and the Chinese takeover of Tibet and the Korean War were factored in Indian foreign policy making. The chief features of the Nehruvian phase can be summarized as hereunder:

(I) Non-alignment, that is not joining any of the super power led alliance systems – mostly military, like the US led CENTO, SEATO or NATO or USSR led combines in Asia or Europe which emerged as the main feature of the ‘ Cold War ‘  between USA and USSR and as its concomitants, the arms race, nuclear build up and localised conflicts and India did take an independent course often as it did during the war in Vietnam on what she viewed on merits of each case.

(II)               As Nehru viewed India’s poverty and backwardness as the outcome of shortfall in investment and acute shortage of capital in relation to the huge workforce. He was flexible in the matter of obtaining from abroad. Non-alignment though founded on neutrality, significantly made no difference when it came to economic and technological assistance – bilateral or multilateral as the case may be, provided the terms of engagement were beneficial to India. India thus took Soviet aid to build up Steel industry and defence capability, while it took US aid for initiating ‘Green Revolution’ and building the technological and research institutes like IITs, which was built on the model of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

(III)             India’s search for ‘Third world unity’ by supporting Afro-Asian people’s struggle for freedom and vehemently opposing ‘Apartheid’ in South Africa gave birth to Afro-Asian Solidarity movement. India gave unqualified support to it and this enabled India to emerge as a leader of the non-alignment movement (NAM). Thus idealism remained a hallmark of Nehru’s foreign policy.

A corollary to this policy is strong support to the UN system, the multilateral aid and specialized UN agencies like the FAO, UNESCO, ILO and the IMF and the World Bank and to attract development assistance from these agencies and also pitching for bilateral aid to raise investment. India did succeed in good measure in this balancing act between two Superpowers in a “ bi-polar” world while adhering to her mixed economy and public sector led under five year plan development model having some features common to Soviet GosPlan. This was an extension of the non-alignment in economic policy which did not invite any serious opposition from the West.

(IV)             The interaction with the USSR began significantly from the mid 50’s and steadily extended to defence as the Soviets applied their Veto power on Kashmir to thwart any western move on Kashmir inimical to India and thereby earned India’s support –tacit or open to many of its actions elsewhere, and over the years this expanding relationship with USSR turned into a strategic relationship in the shape of Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in 1971. This enabled India to intervene in East-Pakistan successfully in 1971 in support of freedom struggle of Bangladesh. This was possible due to convergence of Indian and Soviet strategic interests. For India, creation of Bangladesh removed a Pakistani threat in the East and for the Soviets, dismemberment of Pakistan an ally of US, exposed failure of US Policy of unstinted support to Pakistan and hollowness of America’s claim to be a champion of human freedom and rights everywhere during the cold war.

A Decade of Turbulence.

The 1960’s was the most turbulent decade when the foreign policy was put to severe test. The asylum that India granted to Dalai Lama in 1959 and the US covert operation in Tibet from its bases in West and East Pakistan soon after the end of Korean War. India’s border dispute with China, Pakistan’s relentless efforts to destabilize Kashmir and the Chinese overtures to Pakistan created a conflictual situation that led to 1962 Sino-India border conflict. Its immediate fall out was Indo-US defence cooperation and with the west as a whole on a scale that implied a departure from non-alignment; and Pakistan started leaning towards China as it was not allowed by US to take any military initiative in Kashmir during 1962 conflict.

The 1962 Chinese aggression is thus a watershed in India’s foreign relations as rightly observed by Bruce Riedel (JFK’s Forgotten Crisis) that it introduced the “ India-China-Pakistan triangle” and created “ the balance of power, the alliance structure and the arms race that still prevails in Asia”.

The diplomatic outcome of the ‘Tashkent Agreement’ in 1966 after the Indo-Pak war in 1965 was that since India and Pakistan agreed to go back to the Cease Fire Line ( CFL ) in Kashmir, the CFL acquired some international sanctity. Later under the 1972 Shimla agreement following liberation of Bangladesh CFL was converted to Line of Control (LOC) and acquired further legal sanctity which was again confirmed after 1999 Kargil Conflict, when Pakistan was forced to fallback behind the LOC – as a result of Indian military action –and a diktat from the US.

Thus 1971-72 could be treated as the end of the extended Nehruvian phase of Indian foreign policy as its basic structure remained in place – non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, expanding economic and technological cooperation and trade facilitation and making full use of multilateral agencies, such as WTO to promote the growth of Indian economy through trade facilitation.

The post-Nehruvian phase began with the Oil crisis in 1973, the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979-80 and saw momentous development like the 1979 economic reforms of Deng Xiaping in China and China’s adoption of market led capitalist path to progress, India’s peaceful nuclear ‘implosion’, disintegration of USSR and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and re-emergence of nation States in Eastern Europe during 1989-1991, and most significantly emergence of USA as the sole super power and uni-polar world.

It saw the beginning of the Crisis in Middle East (continuing to the present day) with the US intervention in the Iraq in 1989 and earlier in Afghanistan through Pakistan. To this must be added the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka led by The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and India’s initiative to assist Sri Lanka in restoration of peace, ethnic reconciliation and harmony.

If one closely examines Indian Foreign policy response to these developments in the 80s and 90s, certain continuity is observed. India still led the non-aligned movement (NAM) , championed the cause of the South African people for dismantling Apartheid and freedom elsewhere in the Third World and expanding economic cooperation with the neighbours in Asia and in the Indian Ocean Rim. Look East Policy, increasing trade with China, acquisition of full dialogue partnership in ASEAN in 1995, active involvement in SAARC, SAFTA are manifestation of opening up of the economy, trade and technological outreach.

A driving force has been search for energy security through acquisition of overseas energy assets in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America. This period also saw diversification of sources of acquisition of defence equipments which was a part of the policy of building military cooperation with major powers and thus keeping alive the Nehruvian principle of non-alignment and Panchsheel – The five principles of peaceful co-existence that has been the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy.

In this background, 9/11 attack on Twin towers in New York changed the dynamics of global politics and positioned  ‘Global Terror’ firmly in the diplomatic agenda of USA, Russian Federation, EU, ASEAN, SAARC and more significantly it brought for the first time in South Asia, operation of the US war machine in Afghanistan. Though NATO also joined the US led coalition in Afghanistan in 2001, it remained basically an American military response to Al Qaeda and its associated anti-west terror outfits. The US and Western strategic objects in Afghanistan have remained largely unrealised and the resultant instability in Afghanistan poses a security threat to India.

The situation was aggravated by Global financial Crisis which began in 2007-08 and still continuing as the economies of developed countries are yet to recover completely from the “ great recession” as it slowed down growth, reduced income and resulted in increased unemployment particularly in EU countries. This was a reason that fuelled ‘ extremism’ among the sections of Muslims and added a new dimension of threat to global peace and security.

In Asia pacific region the disputes over South China sea involving China, Japan, Vietnam and some ASEAN Nations over the Chinese claim and bid to convert South China Sea – an “International Sea Lane” to a “Chinese lake” has been viewed as a threat to US Policy on the Pacific – seen as “US Pivot” in Asia; and hence the US policy of “rebalancing” in Asia means obstructing growth of Chinese influence in the Asia pacific region has caused tensions in Sino-US relation despite the fact that the US & Chinese economies are integrated and the size of the US- China trade is a huge $ 500 billion annually and China holds over US $ 1 trillion in US treasury bills at present.

The continuing trade negotiations under WTO and the climate change being caused by GHG emissions and the consequent global warming are of great importance to India as  ‘climate Justice’ is critical for economic growth and removal of poverty and human development. Thus in a way WTO and climate talks including 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change have some common features. From, India’s perspective, withdrawal of Agricultural subsidies in advanced countries is as important as transfer of ‘green technologies’ and especially renewable energy technologies to the developing countries facilitated by aid in the larger interest and the need to develop a common global approach to reduction in GHG emission.


The Focus of Last Section in this series would be

Shaping up of Indian Foreign Policy in the wake of these developments in and around India.