The two faces of nonalignment

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Book Review





Zorawar Daulet Singh. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019. 398 pp. Price: Rs 845


Anita Inder Singh


Nonalignment was practised in different ways by Jawharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Zorawar Daulet Singh’s historical account of the changes in India’s foreign policy made largely by the two prime ministers is based mainly on available official archives in India, Britain and the US. The private records of aides including P.N. Haksar, T.N. Kaul and D.P. Dhar illuminate the crafting of India’s foreign policy. Of interest to specialists in Indian foreign policy, it covers the period from independence to 1975. This time frame should have been mentioned   in the title of the book.  The Cold War, after all, lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The author throws light on the ways in which the competing ideas of Indian officials,   their reactions to regional and world events – and the personalities of both prime ministers – shaped India’s diplomacy. The crises during which Indian foreign policy evolved included some of the same strategic theatres: East Bengal (1950s, 1971), Formosa and Indochina (mid-1950s and mid -1960s). Additionally the book analyses the handling of Goa (1961) and Sikkm (1970-5) by Nehru and Indira Gandhi respectively.

Nehru was as aware of the power of realpolitik and the significance of the balance of power as Indira Gandhi. He nonetheless believed in India’s indivisible security with its neighbours and its ability to contribute to Asian and world peace.  By the time Indira Gandhi became premier  in 1966, India had been defeated by China and there was no sign of an end to  the border conflict with Pakistan. Sceptical about winning over neighbours through concessions, she used war as an instrument to end the humanitarian crisis created by Islamabad’s genocide in the former East Pakistan, to break up Pakistan and to create the new state of Bangladesh.

Nonalignment developed  during the early Cold war.  Daulet Singh goes along with critics of the pro-western tilt of Nehru’s foreign policy . But  what did the Soviets then offer India ? Until Stalin’s death in 1953, they condemned  Nehru as a camp-follower of imperialism. Even when ties improved under Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR  was unable to  compete with the West as an aid-donor.  The book itself shows that Indira Gandhi  refrained from lecturing Washington on Vietnam because only the US could give  India the food it needed.

Moreover, if Nehru was really inclined towards the West, why did Britain and the US perceive nonaligned India as being “pink”, if not “red”?  Did part of the answer lie with Nehru’s close confidant, Krishna Menon?  In 1948 the US envoy, Loy Henderson, who couldn’t stand nonalignment, recorded Krishna Menon’s acidulous greeting:  “‘Well, this is interesting; you are the first American Ambassador who has ever darkened my threshold.”’  Another   US official reviled him as ‘a poisonous fellow’, actively inimical to Americans.

The author  could  have added “inter-national” depth to his account by revealing  how British and American  reports of  meetings  with  Indian diplomats corroborated or differed from Indian accounts.  Western  officials always made some personal comments about their  Indian counterparts. How did Indian diplomats  relate personally to the British  and American officials  they negotiated with? And did personal  impressions shape their images  of  the West  and of  India’s world role?

At another level, what did India make of the fact that 13   out of the 28 countries attending the Bandung Conference in 1955 were Western allies? Was India  aware that Britain and the US persuaded  several Asian countries to criticise Nehru ‘s anti-colonialism?  Or that the charm and  peace-talk of Chou En-Lai, invited at India’s initiative,   impressed even the arch-cold-warrior John Foster Dulles, who ‘saluted’ his performance at Bandung (although he doubted Chou’s  sincerity)?

Daulet Singh is rightly aware of  the  link  between the  India’s early and contemporary foreign policies.  Could he have said more about the connection between domestic and foreign policy? After all,   the methods of  handling foreign and domestic affairs  can be  analogous.  Although India was one of the world’s poorest  countries  when it became independent, Asia’s economic tigers  had yet to spring up . Nehru’s India  was  widely respected because of his   intellectual, political  and moral calibre, and – as British and US records make clear –  his forging of the Indian state-nation through democratic consensus.

The accountable, internationally esteemed  domestic consensus  builder was  the natural bridge builder in world  affairs in ways that neither Indira Gandhi, nor any other Indian practitioner  of realpolitik,  could ever be.   Nehru’s consensus and bridge-building stand out when one realises that, further afield.  towards the west, no post-communist European country has achieved a strong political consensus – despite receiving  EU largesse and “democracy assistance”.

The ways in which India secures its interests in a dynamic world will, of necessity, change.  Nehru did not want India to be mean, especially to its smaller neighbours.  His principled pragmatism contrasts with   the current petty   “transactionalism”   in foreign policy. That  has led many of India’s smaller  neighbours –  and Asian countries  – to turn to its  greatest rival, China,  despite the boasts about India’s global power. Perhaps Daulet Singh could write more about the link between domestic and foreign policy in his next well-researched book?

Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi


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