50 Years Of Independence: Assessing The Nehruvian World View

09 Aug, 1997    ·   9

Kanti Bajpai, highlights India's foreign relations and the various diplomatic positions in the Nehruvian period

Fifty years after independence, it is worth asking how India has done strategically. Have its basic policies worked well or have they failed? I shall not answer the question for the whole 50 years, but, for the most part, will focus instead on the `Nehru period' which I admire and which I feel is being trundled off the stage of Indian history as a strategic embarrassment. I shall take a narrow view of the term `strategic' and refer basically to the management of relations and resources to make, or avoid, large scale violence.



What were India 's basic strategic policies in Nehru's period? First, Nehru understood as early at least as 1943 that the US and the Soviet Union were the new great powers and that Europe , and Britain in particular, was exhausted. When independence came, this proved true. Non-alignment was the primary strategic policy in dealing with bipolarity, and it has served India well. South Asia , as New Delhi hoped, became a relative backwater of the Cold War. This does not mean that there were no stresses and strains in the region as a result of US-Soviet rivalry, but these were modest compared to what happened in the rest of Asia and of course Europe.



Second, Nehru, contrary to the growing view, was not foolish and romantic about China . He saw clearly that Mao's China could be a threat to India and the rest of Asia . Rather than embroil a newly independent and weak India against China , he proposed an alternative route. He sought negotiations on the border issue. He tried to dampen the appeal of communism in India and elsewhere in Asia by arguing that economic progress and social reform were a firmer basis for stability and democracy than containment and confrontation. And he tried to bring Communist China into international society (e.g. His insistence that Beijing occupy China 's seat in the UN ). It is true that he made some tactical mistakes-- the `Forward Policy', for instance. But it is also true that hysterical Parliamentarians increasingly tied his hands on China . It is perhaps true that the Indian Army was not altogether prepared for the Chinese, but this does not invalidate Nehru's and India 's basic approach to China . We lost the war and have an abiding sense of humiliation over the defeat, but this feeling is overblown: the war itself was short and not very costly in material terms.



Third, Nehru also normalised relations with Pakistan after the war of 1948.Indian strategy with respect to Pakistan has been a combination of force, negotiations, and indirection. We have met force with force (1948,1965,1971); we have offered negotiations on every issue and have an impressive record of cooperation ( by 1983, virtually every bilateral dispute with Pakistan was settled peacefully, except Kashmir -- and in 1956 we nearly settled that as well); and we have insisted on various strategies of indirection which would soften the relationship with Pakistan (trade, sports, travel, etc). This has not altogether worked -- few strategies do. But we have constructed a record of cooperation with our rival; and we have done alright in war-- we have not lost a war; we have drawn one (1965); and we have won one(1971). That's not bad strategically.



Some argue that Nehru committed a blunder in 1948 in not taking all of Kashmir . This was not a blunder. Weak states in the international system must support institutions and institutional ways of solving disputes. India was a weak entrant into the international system. It was an original member of the UN which it hoped would protect the weak.Agreeing to the ceasefire and to a UN role was a longer term strategy designed to indicate our support of institutional ways of solving disputes. That was more important than getting one third of Kashmir . The great strategic blunder was not Kashmir in 1948 but Pokhran in 1974. This played into the hands of those in Pakistan who wanted the bomb. With the bomb, by the late 1980's, Islamabad was free to take advantage of problems in Kashmir because it no longer feared the kind of conventional counterstrike Shastri launched in 1965.



Fourth, Nehru was realistic about the role of force. He laid the basis for a self sufficient defence industry-- it is another matter that this was not achieved by his successors. And he was perfectly aware that in building a nuclear programme he was leaving open the door for the bomb. He hoped that India would not waste a lot of money and talent in defence, but he made it possible for free India to defend itself. Nehru as a befuddled old man in a hard world who failed to comprehend the need for armed force is an untenable and unfair image.



Finally, Nehru and his successors have kept India out of "total war"-- external or internal. No one in Asia , except South Asia , has escaped total war since 1900. Japan , China , Southeast Asia , Northeast Asia , all were devastated by either external or internal total war or indeed by a combination. India gave South Asia relative stability. I have gestured at how India did it externally. Internally the key problem was how to avoid ethno-religious war. Nehru produced a system that has saved India the scourge of a calamitous civil war: the promise of participation for all in a parliamentary democracy; the granting of group rights (to linguistic, religious, caste, and regional groups); the decentralisation of power in a layered federalism; and a counterinsurgency method which uses force and the lure of elections to control separatism.



This is a good strategic record by any reckoning-- and we owe most of it to Nehru. Will we do as well in the next fifty years?