India must break out of Nehruvian straitjacket

From nonalignment to a pragmatic foreign policy



Brahma Chellaney

Mail Today, January 12, 2010


The world has changed fundamentally in the past quarter-century since the advent of the Information Age and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet there are some in India who still want the country to hew to the half-century-old traditions of the Nehruvian foreign policy. Fortunately, India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, with its foreign, economic and others policies reflecting growing realism.


The very essence of a forward-thinking, effective foreign policy is dynamism. A static foreign policy attached to an old school of thought — even if that school was associated with a great personality — can hardly advance a country’s interests.


Actually, the struggle between realism and idealism has been a constant phenomenon in independent India, starting from the contrasting approaches of the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his deputy prime minister, Sardar Patel. That struggle still manifests itself in policymaking.


While important countries have pursued strategies of “balance of power”, “balance of threat” or “balance of interest”, Indian foreign policy has not been organized around a distinct strategic doctrine, except for a period under Indira Gandhi.  It is not uncommon for Indian policymakers to feed to the nation dreams sold to them by others. Nor are flip-flops uncommon in Indian foreign policy. Despite imbibing greater realism, India has yet to strategically pursue its wider interests with the requisite unflinching resolve.


In the absence of goal-oriented statecraft, the propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure still runs deep in Indian foreign policy.  It has ignored the sound advice of Talleyrand: “By no means show too much zeal”.


The blunt fact is that India is still in transition from the practices of Nehruvian diplomacy to a post-Nehruvian approach to world affairs. India, for example, has given up the Nehruvian didactic approach, or at least tried to. But it hasn’t as yet fully embraced realpolitik. Nor is it an assertive pursuer of self-interest, in the way China is.


Indeed, India — home to more than one-sixth of the human race — continues to punch far below its weight. Internationally, it is a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. Yet, in the past decade, India’s growing geopolitical importance, high GDP growth rate and abundant market opportunities have helped increase its international profile. As a “swing” geopolitical factor, India has the potential to play a constructive role by promoting collaborative international approaches.  


Its foreign policy seems headed in the right direction. Through dynamic diplomacy, India — the world’s most-assimilative civilization — can truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West, including a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds.


In the coming years, India will increasingly be aligned with the West economically. But, strategically, it can avail of multiple options, even as it moves from the Nehruvian mindset and attitudes to a contemporary, globalized practicality.


In keeping with its long-standing preference for policy independence, India is correctly pursuing the option to forge different partnerships with varied players to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings. That course means that from being non-aligned, it is likely to become multialigned, while tilting more towards Washington, even as it preserves the core element of nonalignment — strategic autonomy. Put simply, India is likely to continue to chart its own destiny and make its own major decisions.


A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be best positioned to advance its interests in the changed world.


Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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