Reflections on Indian foreign policy


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POST-INDEPENDENCE foreign policy can be considered in three segments – the first ending in 1964 with the death of Jawaharlal Nehru; the second from 1964 to 1989, being the periods of Indira Gandhi, the Janata interlude and Rajiv Gandhi; and the third, the post-1990 post-Cold War period, which still continues. There are, of course, considerable overlaps of these frameworks, but they represent successively the formulation, mutation and abandonment of non-alignment. In the first two segments, non-alignment was the leitmotif of Indian foreign policy.

Non-alignment’s ideological moorings began, flourished and died with Nehru. The second period was one of realism and pragmatism that found India moving ever closer into the orbit of the Soviet Union. The present period after 1990 and the demise of the Soviet Union found India in an unfamiliar international environment, but it recovered to adjust to opportunism – in the sense of seeking and exploiting opportunities, whether in its attraction for the United States as an asset in containing the rise of China, or in reviving ancient ties with East and Southeast Asia in the form, if not the substance, of a ‘Look East’ policy. Some of the early improvisation returned to sustain India’s flexibility, backed by robust economic growth which has enabled India to be described as an ‘emerging power’.

Idealism: The nationalist movement’s stress on self-reliance nurtured a feeling of Indian exceptionalism, although this was offset by the desire to be universalist. Indian leaders believed that India alone knew best and national pride turned its diplomats into being famously prickly, which detracted from the well founded arguments they often adduced. This supposed superiority was grounded in a hazy Nehruvian vision; he had, as early as 1939, said that, ‘India will always make a difference to the world: fate has marked us for big things’,1 and this attitude became internalized: President Pranab Mukherjee, decades later, claimed that ‘we taught the entire world that we have to live in peace.’2

At the heart of Nehru’s concept of non-alignment was that Asia should take charge of its history and that India and China were destined to be its prime movers. He dispatched ambassadors to Moscow and Nanjing and convened an Asian Relations Conference even before Independence, declaring that India was ‘the centre and focal point of the many forces at work in Asia… the meeting point of Western and Northern and Eastern and Southeast Asia’, a statement received with indignation and alarm by many Asian countries. Ideology, as opposed to idealism, was a lesser consideration for Nehru, which enabled him to adjust to the Soviet-Yugoslav and Sino-Soviet splits, de Gaulle’s independence from NATO and the trans-Atlantic rupture over Suez, and his instructions to Indian delegates at conferences were to consider Indian interest first even before the merits of a case.


Nehru came to power after a lifetime of opposition to imperialism and racism, and he held utopian ideas on transforming the world order loosely adumbrated in the ‘doctrine’ of non-alignment. He was conditioned by the 1930s European socialism that inclined him towards the USSR and against the USA. He showed an indulgence to the Soviet Union he did not show to the West, and entertained an enduring concern about Washington’s fitness for world leadership. His opposition to alliances stemmed from US arms supplies to Pakistan from 1954 and the creation of SEATO (1954) and CENTO (1956). Then as now, Washington sought to prevent Asian dominance by any single nation, and had decided that Pakistan would be an important partner in the West’s strategic plans. Both USA and China were convinced that India had hegemonic designs in Asia and used Pakistan to counter this threat.


The West’s unsympathetic approach to Kashmir and Goa drew India closer to Beijing and Moscow with the Panch Sheel agreement of 1954 and Bulganin-Khrushchev’s visit to India in 1955 as new landmarks. Non-aligned India was chairman of the commission that supervised the exchange of Korean prisoners in 1953, one of three nations to form the Indo-China commissions, was part of the UN Emergency Force after Suez in 1956, a contributor to the UN peacekeeping force in Congo in 1960, and helped to end the four-power occupation of Austria. It backed China’s claim to join the UN and refused to sign a peace treaty with Japan. After years of abstention, USSR supported India on Kashmir.

These were notable successes for Nehru, but India’s armed action to reclaim the Portuguese colonies in India and its stand on the Soviet invasion of Hungary led Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt to bewail that ‘we have lost our moral prestige among many democratic nations’,3 and non-alignment did not prove adequate for India to handle its own neighbourhood, or to avoid wars and incessant acrimony with Pakistan and later, China.

Non-alignment, though nebulous, was not in itself flawed, but led to overconfidence among Indian practitioners that the international situation could be negotiated without any compromise of lofty principle, failing to appreciate the paradox of a purportedly moral orientation to foreign policy with the compulsions of the real world. In particular, they neglected the necessity for a state without allies to be able to protect itself: non-alignment was no safeguard for any country against aggression.

Good relations with China were central to Nehru’s non-alignment policy, and he made strenuous efforts to assuage the fears of communism in Burma and Southeast Asia, especially at the Bandung Conference in 1955. The war with China in 1962 was the first challenge for Nehru’s non-alignment, when support for India from the non-aligned countries, other than Cyprus and Ethiopia, was notably lacking. In the 1950s India punched above its weight; during and after the 1960s the reverse was true. Thereafter, and until today, India’s ties with China remain hostage to the triangular interplay between USA and China, Russia and China, and Pakistan and China.


Nehruvian non-alignment gave freedom to newly independent countries to develop relations with all states, including those in alliances. By 1962 and the colonial ‘scuttle’ from Africa, non-alignment was part of the international vocabulary and the newly-formed Organization of African Unity pronounced all its members to be non-aligned. Non-alignment was politically and economically profitable, and however much it was criticized in the West, it was not strong enough as a moral or national force to cause any real harm to western interests. In practice, Nehru himself was a realist, although he contributed to confusion by articulating his foreign policy in the vocabulary of idealism. His objectives were straightforward; to take aid from the West and multilateral sources, and engage in healthy economic, trade and technology contacts with both camps.

India moralized against the Cold War but had its own Cold War with Pakistan, and India opposed the policy of non-alignment by others when it came to India’s relations with Pakistan or China. After 1962, Nehru’s self-confidence crumbled. India was too big to align itself comfortably with either superpower, and neither really sought any alliance with India. And given its material weakness, India could play little meaningful role in world affairs for the next three decades.


Realism: India encountered severe difficulties between 1962 and 1991 – tension and two wars with Pakistan, the Emergency of Indira Gandhi, fabricated crises like ‘Brasstacks’ in 1986-7, unrest in Kashmir stoked openly and clandestinely by Pakistan from 1989, and periodic friction with China and USA. Natural disasters and a stagnant economy, with its unenviable reputation as the most regulated country outside the Communist bloc, resulted in a massive influx of aid. Tamil secession in Sri Lanka from the 1970s produced a series of bad judgements and unwise interventions by Indira Gandhi and her son. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, rise of Muslim extremism, arrival of Gorbachev and the abrupt demise of the USSR, dramatically changed India’s status in the international landscape. During this period, non-alignment was India’s consistent lodestone, together with close alignment with Moscow. After Nehru’s death, the intellectual underpinning of non-alignment was gone, and a version of balance of power evolved that was dependent on good relations between New Delhi and Moscow.

Even-handed actions by the USSR, such as at Tashkent in 1965, the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, and denial of enriched uranium after 1974, did not discourage those in India who refused to believe that Moscow’s support could ever be functional outside the constraints and circumstances of the Cold War and US-Soviet-China rivalry. The idea that USSR could sell arms to Pakistan was considered heretical, and Soviet loyalists in India were as dismissive of sceptics as Nehru and Krishna Menon had been about Chinese intentions decades earlier. On Soviet interventions in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 and the Soviet-backed Vietnam invasion of Cambodia in 1978, India remained studiously silent. After Nixon’s China visit in 1971 and the looming Bangladesh war, an Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed which was an anomaly for Indian non-alignment, but Indira Gandhi could scarcely alienate a nation that gave India defence supplies and technology when the West was heavily arming Pakistan and creating the monster that would become Islamist terrorism.


It rankled that the West tried to pressurize New Delhi to settle with Pakistan, and it was an article of faith in India that assistance from the Soviet bloc was without strings. For the abundant monetary and food aid supplied by the West, India rarely extended any public appreciation. The USA and India had a litany of mutual complaints. Nixon’s presidency was a reprise of Dulles’ anger with India, especially over Bangladesh, and while Cold War military confrontation gradually eased, political, economic and ideological rivalries sharply affected Indo-US ties although America continued as India’s leading trade partner, and was crucial to the Green Revolution, nuclear development, the IITs and the computer age. ‘Non-alignment’, wrote Jagat Mehta, was ‘a kind of blackmail leverage, presuming on the West and tilting towards the East.’4 The Janata government from 1977 to 1980 promised a ‘genuine’ non-alignment, but soon realized the value of strategic alignment with Moscow, helped by President Carter’s maladroit efforts to make India sign the NPT.

Rajiv Gandhi tried to move the issues of disarmament, environment and South-South cooperation to the forefront of the international agenda, but his ideas were dressed in the vestments of the past. The world was changing; decolonization accelerated and was no longer an issue, conflicts in the Third World multiplied, SEATO and CENTO were dismantled, and no one took the Non-aligned Movement seriously, although Indian diplomats gamely continued to mouth the same empty slogans about Nehru’s imperishable legacy. The ‘intellectual vested interest …in the presumed permanence of the Cold War’5 was shown to be fallacious after Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, and there were some green shoots under Rajiv Gandhi that suggested that the US was willing to decouple India and Pakistan and accept India’s primacy in South Asia.


Opportunism: In 1989, the Berlin Wall, about which Nehru found nothing to say, came down, followed by the Soviet Union itself. The Cold War had collapsed without a whimper after 40 years and India lost the benefit of having a superpower positioned on its side in moments of crisis. In this new order brought about by the West led by the USA, India was obliged to adjust to West-led doctrines of globalization and free market economy, and norms for the environment and human rights. It fell to P.V. Narasimha Rao and his successors to calibrate Indian foreign policy to the new normal.

During the Russian years of chaos and shock therapy, Foreign Ministers Shevardnadze and Kozyrev were profoundly indifferent to ties with India, and the Russian veto to protect Indian interests became dependent on the inclinations of the Russian ambassador to the UN. The Chinese economy was meanwhile growing fast and eclipsing the GDP of several developed economies. The state socialist model came into severe stress and the China/Southeast Asia prototype became the latest paradigm.

The US used its status as the only superpower to ignore the UN and engage in interventions and installation of neo-protectorates with blatant abuses of state sovereignty. Pakistan after the jihadist takeover in Afghanistan became more aggressive towards India. There was no traction in the G-77, G-15, G-20 or international financial institutions for collective bargaining; multilateralism in the shape of such formats had become progressively irrelevant. Non-alignment as a sensible power play was no longer sustainable.

In these circumstances there had to be a change from identification with the Third World to a non-ideological promotion of Indian interests. Standing up to the West was old hat and there was no merit in Third World trade unionism, but the Congress Party and what remained of the Left could not disown the foreign policy or socialistic economic policies of the Nehruvian past. Therefore, reforms were introduced in homeopathic doses.


Important shifts took place nonetheless. Inder Gujral was the only prime minister who had experience of serving as an ambassador, and his ‘Gujral Doctrine’ of extending non-reciprocal benefits to South Asian neighbours was a departure from the previous overweening attitudes. Neither the Congress nor BJP in future made non-alignment a central plank in foreign policy, and attendance at the summits was no longer de rigueur. Morality for a nation of Gandhi’s followers was considered an essential part of Indian foreign policy, but political influence not rooted in power obviously only had limited efficacy. With the support of a growing economy partially liberated from the shackles of stifling state regulation, India decided to make a clean break with its past as champion of general and complete disarmament and entered into an arms race, including nuclear weapons and space vehicles, not only with Pakistan but China, which had by now become the world’s second economic and political power and growing increasingly assertive both in Asia and beyond.


In the aftermath of the Cold War, India had to reckon with a sole power dominating international politics, though its ties with the USA were weak. The primacy of the US created unease in New Delhi, and closer ties between India, Russia and China were the answer, but each of the three countries wanted to forge a bilateral relationship with the US and were careful not to make the triangle look anti-American. Later aggregations like Brazil-Russia-India-China, Brazil-South Africa-India-China, and some others in Asia like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, did not serve the purpose of creating any new pole around which elements in discord with US supremacy could find comfort; at best these were issue based groupings. For India, building a new relationship with Washington became a high priority, together with close ties with second-tier countries like Russia, France and Germany. The Indo-US partnership was bolstered by the transparent effort by Washington to build a consortium to hedge against China’s rise, in which Manmohan Singh first, and Modi more vigorously, took part.

Atal Behari Vajpayee was more successful in domestic affairs than foreign policy. Fortuitously assisted by a slim parliamentary majority which kept his party’s hotheads under control, he calmed tempers over Babri Masjid and Kashmir, though his efforts to meaningfully engage Pakistan were unsuccessful. His main achievement was in quieting the sanctions occasioned by his decision to move from implied capacity on nuclear weapons to open capability, a decision whose strategic value is still ambiguous. Exercising restraint during the Kargil attack, he won the respect of Washington under President Clinton as a ‘responsible nation’, which later matured under George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh into the nuclear deal, though this never delivered its expected benefits. Under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi, foreign policy adopted a robust approach due to his tireless energy. India was moving ‘from its past emphasis on the power of the argument to the argument of power.’6


Modi retooled many elements of the Gujral doctrine and brought fresh impetus to India’s relations with West, East and Southeast Asia, though he is hampered in South Asia by the inherited and emotive problems of the Madhesis in Nepal and Tamils in Sri Lanka, and his major economic initiatives with important partners are impeded by an inefficient and lethargic bureaucracy. He shed inhibitions about closer contacts with USA and Israel, depending on the former for access to technology, investments for ‘Make in India’ and geo-strategic support, especially in regard to Pakistan and China. Thereby hang numerous risks; the fickleness of Washington’s policies, now exacerbated by the Trump presidency, and dependence on American plans regarding Afghanistan, Central Asia and China’s growing world status as an economic and military power. This policy also imparts a lack of definition over Indian ties with Russia, still India’s main arms supplier, whose links with USA are subject to abrupt swings, and which seeks to draw closer to China as insurance.

Modi’s charisma and reputation for decisiveness has given a boost of self-confidence to Indian communities abroad, and make him a welcome interlocutor for foreign counterparts. He knows the importance of the personal touch in the formal world of foreign relations, but his confidence in winning over his counterparts has its pitfalls, and has turned sour in the cases of Nawaz Sharif and Xi Jinping, whom Modi has courted and by whom he feels betrayed or at least disillusioned. Excessive emphasis on joint action against terrorism has a subtext, which is intended to enlist others against Pakistan, but only serves to convey the impression that India is unable to defend itself from a smaller and weaker neighbour. Similarly, the stress on admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN blacklisting of Pakistani terrorists is a weak argument against China that does not enhance India’s reputation.

Modi is a man in a hurry; he has to learn that the essence of a successful foreign policy is, despite every setback, to exercise patience and flexibility, avoid un-retractable rhetoric, and look for even slim opportunities to blunt hostility and enhance cooperation. Most of his activity is laudable, but he should recall Palmerston’s lapidary advice: ‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.’ Tying India to a long-term prospect of a US-led containment of China and placing stringent preconditions on dialogue with Pakistan do not serve the nation’s permanent interests.



1. M.M. Rahman, The Politics of Non-alignment. Associated Publishing, Delhi, p. 116.

2. The Telegraph (Calcutta), 3 May 2017.

3. Subimal Dutt Diaries, November 1956, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.

4. J.S. Mehta, The Tryst Betrayed. Penguin Books India, Delhi, 2010, p. 299.

5. J.S. Mehta, Rescuing the Future. Manohar, Delhi, 2008, p. 365.

6. C. Raja Mohan, Crossing the Rubicon. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, N.Y., 2004, p. xxii