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18 April 2019, Gateway House

When India played peacemaker

This account of India’s foreign policy under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi is an accomplished body of research into a period, usually studied primarily for India’s Non Aligned Movement. The author suggests that Nehru’s larger Asian, more global, view for India has therefore gone unnoticed

Former Indian Ambassador

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Huge effort goes into any major doctoral dissertation, and its subsequent publication as a book makes it a formidable achievement. This is particularly true of Zorawar Daulet Singh’s book. A published author and reputed commentator on international affairs, he spares the reader the typical first chapter of a doctoral dissertation, which usually examines the research question from a highly theoretical perspective. Instead, he has skilfully incorporated theory into a powerful, readable introduction, which provides this work’s leitmotif. The book is an intellectual tour de force, impressive on many counts

Zorawar’s central point is: India’s foreign policy under first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s was that of a peacemaker (emphasis author’s). “…there is a dearth of serious work on Nehru’s regional policy in the 1950s…interpretations of Nehru are either ‘hagiographic’ or polemical critiques…” He says, “Nehru perceived traditional realism as ‘the tactical small stuff’ and felt his role conception for India ‘was more strategic’.” In the 1970s, under Indira Gandhi, India became a security seeker (emphasis author’s), with “a network conception of order and security”. That produced a change in the way regional policy behaviour was viewed by Indira Gandhi.

Zorawar argues that among foreign policy analysts, there has been an excessive focus on India’s policy of Non Alignment, and insufficient attention, especially in relation to the 1950s, to look beyond the India-China relationship. Many have tended to retrofit into the narrative of actions in that first decade the 1962 India-China confrontation, under-playing Nehru’s larger Asian – and global – conception. This is a key message in the first half of the book, while the second half looks at Indira Gandhi’s policies.

Nehru asserted a unity between means and ends, evoking ancient Indian statesman Kautilya’s support in this; foreign policy was, for him, a two-way street. Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel viewed the events very differently, which the author characterises as ‘ominous’.

Zorawar devotes considerable attention to the East Pakistan crisis of 1950, an event which has not been studied enough. Handling that crisis, while avoiding pressures from domestic realpolitik hawks, Nehru sought to mute the security dilemma, which the author calls “an important function of India’s peacemaker role”. For instance, in his speech in Parliament on 17 March 1950, when he was pressed for action, “which was an euphemism for war”, Nehru stressed India’s friendly relations with her neighbours. Ultimately, what pushed Pakistan and the Western countries to change their position was not so much the potential it held for escalation, but their fear that Nehru might lose control of foreign policy.

The thesis that Nehru’s foreign policy was that of a peacemaker is interesting, but incomplete. The major event not addressed in the book is the failure of Nehru’s China policy, which originated in a misjudgement that goes back to 1950. That is also when Sardar Patel’s advice that the border issue be taken up with China was spurned. Indian maps had hitherto shown the western sector as undemarcated; new maps issued that year put forward the entire India-China border as unequivocally settled. That line of argument was extended into the 1954 negotiations over Tibet when it was suggested that if China raised the border issue, they “could walk out of the Conference and break off the negotiations,” says a note from the ministry of external affairs.[1]

The 1950 posture – that there was nothing to negotiate over – became a rigid doctrine that led India to reject compromise, notably in the Nehru-Chou En-Lai talks in Delhi, in April 1960, and in subsequent dialogue, right up to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 talks with Deng Xiaoping. It also shaped Indian public perception, and constrained the space for a settlement for succeeding governments. Did Nehru’s conception of a peacemaker’s role lull him into a self-image, which, in turn, held back a foreign policy focused on national self-interest?

How should we see Nehru’s response to Pakistan entering into a military alliance with the United States in 1954? Several Indian foreign policy and defence officials advised that India should seek aid from the Soviet Union and also build up her defence capabilities. This was rejected by Nehru on the ground that a competitive military build-up would be “exceedingly wrong policy and would lead us in the wrong direction”. The author concludes that for Nehru the U.S.-Pakistan pact “could only be responded to effectively at this systemic and extra regional level”. Nehru then chose to immerse himself in Indo-China affairs.

It is interesting how the same facts can be presented in different ways. In 1955, Indian Ambassador Badruddin Tyabji and Commonwealth Secretary Subimal Dutt urged that India offer military and material assistance to Indonesia. The author approvingly describes Nehru‘s rejection of these suggestions as ‘undesirable’, and which might have resulted in India getting ‘hopelessly entangled’. But, in fact, India’s long-persisting indifference towards Indonesia seriously damaged an important relationship – despite all the help that Nehru had extended President Sukarno during the period 1946—1950 when Indonesia was struggling against residual efforts at domination by the Dutch. The India-Indonesia relationship has received too little attention from our scholars.

In the book’s second half, Indira Gandhi‘s conception of the role of security seeker is defined in terms of three elements: first, a narrow definition of India’s interests, centred on the subcontinent, rather than an Asian space; second, a divisible concept of security and an inclination to leverage a balance of power; and third, a tendency to employ coercive means – rather than accommodation – to pursue geopolitical aims in South Asia. Zorawar asserts that Indira Gandhi had an “instinctive approach to power politics”. Her efforts in Vietnam in 1966 were conditioned not by peacemaking, but by “an emerging security seeker role” to shape events to India’s advantage.

A deeper question remains. If the leader of the country, whose predecessor had been a peacemaker, shifts to the role of a security seeker, does that not represent a failure of the peacemaker’s policies? Should this not have been dealt with in the book?

The author devotes a major chapter to the Bangladesh war. Visiting India in July 1971, immediately prior to his secret journey to Beijing via Pakistan, Kissinger warned P.N. Haksar (Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary 1971—1973) that in the event of an India-Pakistan conflict “China would certainly react and…while that would lead India to rely on Soviet assistance…it will cause complications for us in the U.S.” Zorawar does not mention that in talks with Premier Chou En-lai a week later, Kissinger did his best to wind him up, indirectly urging China to intervene in a possible India-Pakistan conflict.

This emerges from the near-verbatim records of the Kissinger-Chou discussions, of July and October 1971, available with the U.S. National Archives. Reporting to President Nixon on 11 November 1971, he covered the Bangladesh crisis: “Indeed, the Chinese seemed more sober about the dangers than they did in July…while China clearly stands behind Pakistan, I detected less passion and more caution from Chou than I had in July…Chou, despite his promise never came back to this subject…’[2] The new element for China was, of course, the Indo-Soviet Treaty.

The penultimate chapter is about Sikkim and the developments of 1971—1975, culminating in its integration with India. Zorawar gives detailed insights, based on meticulous research and interviews with key officials. He even gained access to the personal papers of former ambassador, and secretary, ministry of external affairs, K.S. Bajpai, which is perhaps a first for a scholar.

This chapter ends with Indira Gandhi’s comment on neighbourhood policy that I had supplied to the author. It came at a Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs in August 1974, just before the first Chukha Agreement was signed with Bhutan.[3] In fact, that evening at a celebratory dinner with the Bhutan delegation, I asked Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswami Rao Saheb if the Prime Minister’s trenchant remarks, representing a rare policy directive vis-à-vis the neighbouring countries, might be circulated to all ministries as a guideline. He reacted with a brief laugh and changed the subject. The Indian system does not favour clear or explicit policy statements.

The concluding chapter summarises the narrative. Nehru and his advisers “were not insensitive to or uninterested in India’s immediate neighbourhood… (for them) prioritising India’s role in the subcontinent was narrow, short-sighted and ultimately irrelevant if the systemic and regional order issues remained unaddressed”. Indira Gandhi sought “to buttress India’s geopolitical position in the subcontinent…Nehru’s geopolitics no longer found resonance with Indira Gandhi and her advisers.”

And yet, for both peacemaker Nehru and realist Indira Gandhi, building bilateral relationships with Asian countries was never a real priority. That, and a ‘Look East’ Asia policy, with a focus on South East Asia, awaited Narasimha Rao.

Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies During the Cold War By Zorawar Daulat Singh (Oxford University Press)

Ambassador Kishan S. Rana had a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service from 1960-1995. He is an author and a distance teacher of diplomatic studies.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] Ministry of External Affairs note of, ‘The strategy for discussions with China on Tibet’, A.S. Bhasin India-China Relations 1947-2000: A Documentary Study, Vol. II p.973, 3 December 1953

[2] U.S. National Archives, ‘My October China Visit: Discussion of the Issues’, Kissinger memorandum to Nixon, pp. 5 and 20, 11 November 1971

[3] This agreement set the template for subsequent agreements on India-Bhutan hydel power cooperation.

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