India at 70: From Non-Alignment to Strategic Partnership

Yohannan Chemarapally

JAWAHARLAL Nehru, the architect of India's independent foreign policy, had prioritised non-alignment and the solidarity with the developing world as the main guiding force. The nation was guided by this policy till the late 1980's. This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the historic Asian Relation Conference (ARC) hosted by India. The conference chaired by Nehru marked the arrival of India on the world stage. It was attended by many leaders from Asian countries which were on the verge of gaining independence. It had taken place at a time when some colonial powers were still harbouring dreams of holding on to their colonies in Asia. Nehru declared at the conference that India “did not have designs” on any country and that India's “great design” was that of “promoting peace and progress all over the world”.

On the emotive issue of nationalism that is very much in vogue these days in India, Nehru said that it has a role in every country but he stressed that it “should not be allowed to become aggressive and come in the way of international development”. The ARC was followed by the Bandung (Asia-Africa) Conference of 1955 that India played a key part in organising. The conference was the precursor to the non alignment movement (NAM). 29 nations including China, Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq were present at Bandung. The leaders assembled there stressed that their main fight was against poverty, injustice, colonialism and imperialism. They made it clear that they did not want to get involved in the cold war that was then raging between the USA and the Soviet Union. Non alignment became the main tenet of Indian foreign policy for the next forty years.

A brief interregnum of non-Congress rule in the 1970's had not changed the general contours of India's foreign policy. India was the “primus inter pares” in the growing bloc of countries that embraced non-alignment in the dangerous cold war era. The United States in the 1950's and the 1960's had termed the concept of non alignment as a hostile policy. India had played a key role in highlighting the injustices under colonial rule in different parts of the world, especially in Africa. The moral and diplomatic support provided by India in the decolonisation struggle in Southern Africa did play a role in the eventual liberation of the region and the demise of apartheid. India was also in the forefront in raising its voice for the rights of the Palestinians and other oppressed people. In short, India had a lot of goodwill in many capitals in the world, especially in newly independent countries.

India's foreign policy these days has no resemblance to the one practiced during its first forty years. The revisionism started creeping in the early 1990's under the stewardship of the Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao. Many Indian foreign policy analysts argue that the changed circumstances necessitated the radical changes in foreign policy. With the Cold War having ended and the Socialist Bloc in tatters, Indian foreign policy mandarins started slowly abandoning the Nehruvian premises. The thrust since then was to transform India into a “great power”. With that goal in mind, India slowly started tilting towards the West.

From the 1990's onwards, India's main focus was on getting closer to the West. Issues like non-alignment and South-South cooperation were slowly being consigned to the back burner. The short lived third front government under H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral which was briefly in power in the mid-1990's did try to bring Indian foreign policy back to its earlier Nehruvian moorings.  Since then, it has been generally westwards-ho as far as foreign and defense policies were concerned. The 1998 nuclear tests had led to strong technology sanctions imposed by the West on India. To get out of the stranglehold of the sanctions, the first NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, bent over backwards to accommodate American concerns.

Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee's national security adviser, on a visit to Washington, even talked about the feasibility of a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis in international politics. Under UPA-2 and Modi, this wish has now become a virtual reality. Among the countries India has the closest relations with are now the USA and Israel. The two countries are poised to replace Russia as the biggest weapons suppliers to India. India no longer supports the Palestinian cause unequivocally even as the state of Israel becomes an increasingly racist and fundamentalist state. India under the leadership of Modi has now acquired the habit of abstaining on resolutions in UN bodies condemning Israeli human rights abuses that are increasing by the day.   

New Delhi is aware that the Israeli government has absolutely no intentions of either giving the Palestinians an independent state or for that matter stopping its aggrandisement of Palestinian territory. But these facts are of no consequence for the policy makers in New Delhi. The help that Israel provides in defense and for internal security, outweighs issues concerning Palestinian statehood and basic human rights. The Indian exchequer pays huge amounts for the services rendered by Israel. It was under the first NDA government that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, was invited to India. Under the current NDA government, the Indian president and prime minister have made well publicised visits, at a time when the occupied territories are in turmoil. High level exchange of visits had taken place during UPA-1 and 2, but it was Modi, an admirer of the Zionist policy of minority bashing, who now has the dubious distinction of being the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel.

It was the Congress led governments that laid the groundwork for expanded relations with Israel as well as the West. Seven years after the second Pokhran nuclear tests, it was the Manmohan Singh government that went ahead and signed the controversial nuclear deal with Washington. It was preceded by a defense agreement that had the aim of bringing the militaries of the two countries closer. The annual Malabar military exercises involving the navies of the United States, India and Japan is an outcome of the close military and strategic relationship that has been growing since India signed the nuclear deal with the United States in 2005. The Defense Framework Agreement between the two countries was renewed for another ten years in 2015.

India has since been designated a “Major Defense Partner” by the United States. In 2016, India for the first time in history allowed military basing facilities for a foreign army by signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States. The agreement allows the United States to use Indian ports and military bases. India is now being increasingly viewed as a front line ally of the United States as it seeks to confront the growing economic and military clout of China. The Modi government has lent its support to the American position on the South China Sea and has participated in joint naval exercises with the American and Japanese navies. India and the USA are sharing intelligence on Chinese ship and submarine movements in the Indian Ocean.

Russia, which is supposed to be India's “all weather friend” is obviously not very happy with the state of bilateral relations. India's military embrace of Washington coupled with the rapid rate of declining sale of Russian weaponry, has made Moscow cautious. Russia and China now have a much closer military and strategic relationship with a common rival on the global stage – the USA. The “special relationship” with Moscow which stood India in good stead during the Cold War days, could well be a thing of the past. The Soviet Union's support was crucial on the Kashmir issue during the cold war when India had few supporters. During the Bangladesh War, it was the USSR-India Defense Treaty which kept the USA and other powers from intervening on the behalf of Islamabad. Today, New Delhi and Moscow have divergent views on many subjects, including on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the Indian government's stated goals is getting permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The previous UPA and the current government have been lobbying visiting heads of state on this issue since the turn of the century. But if India has to have a realistic chance of permanent membership of a restructured United Nations, it needs the support of the developing nations. These countries are an integral part of NAM. The 120 member NAM has been demanding the democratising of the UN's top decision making body for a long time. NAM members may however be reluctant to support an India that has changed. It is after all a country which now chooses to side with the West on key international issues.

The absence of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, at the NAM summit in Venezuela last year, was noticed. And also the fact that he did not even bother to dispatch his external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, to the summit. Swaraj was in New York around the time to attend the UN General Assembly meet. The leaders of Iran, South Africa and other leading NAM members were all there at the summit. Without the support of NAM members, there is very little chance of India ever making it to the high table of the UN system. India has not even succeeded to piggy back on American support into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Getting into the UNSC mainly with the backing of the West will be a tall order. With his actions in the foreign policy arena in last three years, Modi has shown that he is willing to even shoot himself in the foot to distance himself and his government from the Nehruvian legacy. Modi and his ministers are even reluctant to mention the name of Nehru in events commemorating important Indian foreign policy milestones.

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