Non-alignment is regarded as a seminal achievement of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose letters and essays on the international situation are seen as the insights of a genius by Indian and other historians. To the less “committed” beholder, they seem little different from undergraduate reflections of 1930s vintage in the better universities of the UK. Thus far, there has not been a rigorous accounting of the costs and benefits of non-alignment to the nation as a whole, as well as to some of its constituent parts. An opportunity for securing a united country through the goodwill of Whitehall was lost when in 1939 the Congress Party adopted a stand regarded by its leaders as ambivalent (or non-aligned) between the Axis and the Allies, but which was seen in London as helping the Axis powers by seeking to – inter alia – deter individuals from joining the army.
The resignation of Congress-led ministries in the provinces and the absence of Congress leaders from any of the structures responsible for governance of the country between 1939 and 1945, combined with the 1942 Quit India call (at the very moment when it seemed that Japan was about to sweep across the subcontinent the way it had southeast Asia) and gave traction to the India-phobic lobby within Whitehall.
The consequence was a steady accretion of support to Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, and to UK acceptance of the Two Nation theory. Despite the absence of any visible benefits as a consequence of Congress adopting a policy of non-alignment during the 1939-45 world war, schoolchildren as well as university students in India have been taught that the movement was an immense success. Indeed, if an individual were to go by the history books prescribed across the education system in India, he or she may be forgiven for regarding Mahatma Gandhi and his hand-picked Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru as men of outstanding brilliance who were incapable of making mistakes.
The reality was that the Mahatma’s chosen successor adopted in its entirety, the British colonial system of law and administration, which reserves all power to the state and none to civil society. The country slid into the Nehru Rate of Growth of 2% at a time when even neighbouring Pakistan was developing at more than twice that speed. India had zero backing from the “non-aligned” world after the People’s Liberation Army entered its territory in October 1962. In the tradition of non-alignment, they refused to condemn China or to give any assistance to India. What assistance there was came from the U.S. during the weeks of actual conflict. It was far too late to be of any value, and was tagged along with impossible conditions, such as accepting the Pakistan army’s view on what constituted a fair settlement of the Kashmir issue.
The policy of non-alignment was extant during 1945-64 but was followed again starting 1968 by a tilt towards the USSR. This continued – with intervals of weak enforcement being followed by a stronger alignment – till the USSR itself imploded in 1992. Since then, at first weakly (during 1992-96) and afterwards strongly (1998 onwards), India has sought to replace the 1968-92 tilt towards Moscow with a similar arrangement with Washington.
This has yet to actually happen – not because of the lack of eagerness from Delhi but because of the U.S. establishment’s continuing failure to come up with a paradigm of partnership, one that is not wholly skewed in its own favour but which accommodates a few Indian interests as well. The 1963
Harriman-Sandys mission, the early contacts between Indira Gandhi and Lyndon Johnson, the Clinton-Narasimha Rao and Clinton-Vajpayee years were marked by lost opportunities on both sides. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State W. Averell Harriman and Duncan Sandys, the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, concentrated on Kashmir without thinking of the possibility of making India a military ally of the western powers. A similar focus on Kashmir (and on the destruction of India’s nuclear and missile capability) blinded Bill Clinton to the benefits of making India the primary partner of the U.S. in South Asia, replacing a radicalizing Pakistan.
George W Bush, although more focused on the overall relationship than his predecessors, allowed traditional military thinking that was based on the 1980s Afghanistan war to override considerations that had evolved since then – especially the utility of India as a military ally as part of an Asian version of NATO. The Bush-Cheney team was unable to comprehend that the war in Afghanistan was going badly because of Pakistan and not in spite of it, and reduced India to a sideshow in its obsession with getting the generals in Islamabad on their side.
With Barack Obama in office now, even the weak shoots of a putative new policy towards India have dried up. The new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry clearly disinterested in a country his diplomats see as too fractious to trust and too chaotic to ever be a source of major trouble.
During the 1960s and after, it was essential for an Asian country bent on economic progress to have the goodwill of the United States. From 2005 on, that attention is increasingly going to China. Be it Japan, South Korea or Australia, the three military allies of the U.S. in the eastern Asian theatre, all have economies that are dependent on the Chinese market for their prosperity. Even in the case of India, China has emerged as a much larger potential source of inward investment than stricken economies such as the U.S. or the EU. China also offers technology and production capacities in fields such as telecom, energy and infrastructure. India needs low-cost telecom, energy and infrastructure. Its inadequate domestic production capabilities means that the only location from where it can affordably source such services and equipment is China, which is also in a better position to meet India Inc’s growing need for international capital than western institutions.
Thus far, mutual mistrust has prevented the immense potential synergy in Sino-Indian relations from being exploited. Within India, the security agencies still serve as roadblocks to closer collaboration between domestic and Chinese entities, thereby directly benefitting countries such as the U.S., France and Japan whose manufactures and services compete with Chinese entities in telecom, energy and infrastructure.
The Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi has had great success in ensuring that competition from China is diminished. This it does by (often clandestinely) blacklisting Chinese companies and ensuring that they are not given orders from Indian entities, despite the commercial advantages that they offer. To these bureaucracies, no matter the tepid response of Barack Obama to Delhi’s overtures, India and the U.S. need to be as firmly aligned as Moscow and Delhi were in the Cold War era. The wish being seen as the fact, these agencies ensure that Chinese companies get (often invisibly) disadvantaged from expanding their operations in India.
During the historical period when the Congress Party ought to have been close to the British – the period of the 1939-45 war, after which it was clear that a weakened Britain would no longer have the resilience to hold on to India – it was hostile to London even as its rival, the Muslim League, cosied up to Whitehall and the Viceregal Palace in order to achieve the partition of the country into Pakistan and India. During the period when it was essential to faster economic growth to be Washington-friendly (mid-1960s to mid-1980s) India was in effect in the Soviet camp.
And now in the second decade of the 21st century, when it is obvious that better ties with China are needed to give an impetus towards the double digit growth that the people of India need to escape from the poverty of centuries, the Manmohan Singh government, in an inversion of Nehruvian geopolitics, ignores west and east Asia as sources of capital and technology in favour of continuing the three-decade old habit of looking to the West for capital and for crutches for growth.
Why is India always in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time? In large because dogma trumps honest calculations of self-interest in the framing of policy. An example is Iran, where the sanctions imposed on the country by the U.S. and the EU have opened the oil sector to exploitation by Indian companies. Sourcing more crude oil from Iran would not only reduce the overall cost of India’s crude oil import bill, but equally importantly, reduce the over-reliance on U.S. dollars that has been among the factors leading to the recent fall in the value of the rupee. It would make sense for India to initiate bilateral swap deals with major countries, with a beginning being made within the BRICS bloc. Certainly China and Brazil will be receptive to a changeover from U.S. dollars to local currency, as would – probably – South Africa and Russia.
Barring India and South Africa, the remaining three BRICS have geopolitical approaches at variance with that of the U.S. – as witnessed most recently in President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil cancelling a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama during the UN General Assembly session in New York, over the issue of the U.S. government spying on her office.
Some worry that higher volumes of purchases of oil from Iran will trigger U.S. and EU sanctions. Given the present precarious state of the recovery in the West, it is unlikely that any major trading nation will be severely sanctioned. Certainly not China, and almost certainly not India or Brazil. Should the U.S. or the EU actually move to sanction India, this country could go to its BRICS and other partners and ask for collective counter-measures against the West for inflicting its own geopolitical preferences and prejudices on the rest of the world.
Sadly, in present-day India, even practices that are punished in the U.S. or the UK are not merely tolerated but encouraged. Take for example the operation of international financial entities such as J P Morgan and Goldman Sachs which indulge in speculation and worse and thereby book huge profits at the expense of the overall economy. Such U.S. and UK financial entities that do this in their home countries are fined billions of U.S. dollars by the Obama and Cameron administrations respectively, but get away with a free pass in India despite committing equivalent wrongdoing on an industrial scale.
The refusal of both the RBI as well as the Ministry of Finance to act against these foreign entities even while its agencies harass Indian entities has resulted in sharp rises in the prices of a range Of commodities, including staples like onions. It is common knowledge that British Petroleum is paying out nearly $200 billion because of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; But Union Carbide escaped with a $400 million penalty for being responsible for the death of several thousand people in Bhopal in 1984.
The only fixed point where policy in India has not been aligned is that spot which defines Indian national interest. Non-alignment in practice has meant a refusal to examine policies and outcomes solely from the viewpoint of the national interest, reflected in greater economic growth and a stable internal and external environment which propels such an effort. The national interest calls for selective alignment on some issues with Washington and on others with Beijing.
It calls for the operationalising of a flexible range of options to take advantage of geopolitical opportunities and trends. It calls for substituting Non-alignment with India Alignment.
M. D. Nalapatis vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.
This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.