Foreign Policy

From non-alignment to strategic partnership

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. President Donald Trump on his visit to the White House, on June 26, 2017. He hailed the U.S. as "our primary partner for India's social and economic transformation". Photo: Carlos Barria/REUTERS

April 16, 1955: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Afghanistan's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sardar Mohammad Naim and Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser acknowledging the crowd that had come to see them off for the Bandung Conference, at Palam airport in New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

March 7, 1983: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Cuban President Fidel Castro and Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement Natwar Singh and other delegates at the Seventh NAM Summit, at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

April 7, 1997: Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda with Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an innovation conference with Israeli and Indian CEOs in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2017. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. Photo: Oded Balilty/AP

Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China on September 4, 2016. Under Modi, for the first time in more than two decades, there is a danger of open hostilities once again breaking out wiht China. Photo: Damir Sagolj/REUTERS

With his actions in the foreign policy arena in the past three years, Modi has distanced himself and his government from the Nehruvian legacy. The Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis in international politics has now virtually become a reality.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of India’s independent foreign policy, prioritised non-alignment and solidarity with the developing world as its guiding principles. The nation was guided by this policy until the late 1980s. Significantly, 2017 also marks the 70th anniversary of the historic Asian Relations Conference (ARC), which marked the arrival of India on the world stage. Chaired by Nehru, the conference, held in New Delhi in March-April 1947, was attended by many leaders from Asian countries which were on the verge of gaining independence. It took place at a time when some colonial powers were 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, which is very much in vogue these days in India, Nehru said that it had a role in every country but 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; India played a key role in organising it. It was the precursor of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Leaders from 29 nations, including China, Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq, attended the conference at Bandung. They 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 raging between the United States and the Soviet Union. Non-alignment became the main tenet of India’s foreign policy for the next 40 years.

A brief interregnum of non-Congress rule in the late 1970s did not change the contours of the policy. India was the primus inter pares in the bloc of countries that embraced the principles of non-alignment in the Cold War era. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the U.S. had termed the concept of non-alignment as a hostile policy. John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, famously termed it “evil”.

India 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 it provided in the decolonisation struggle in southern Africa did play a role in the eventual liberation of the countries in the region and the end of apartheid. India was also in the forefront of the efforts to raise the voice for the rights of Palestinians and other oppressed people. In short, India had a lot of goodwill in many capitals in the world, especially in newly independent countries.

The shift in the 1990s

India’s foreign policy these days is a far cry from what it was in the first 40 years. Revisionism started creeping in under the stewardship of Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s. Many Indian foreign policy analysts argue that changed circumstances had necessitated “radical” changes in policy. With the Cold War having ended and the socialist bloc in tatters, India’s foreign policy mandarins slowly started abandoning the Nehruvian premises. The thrust since then has been to transform India into a “great power”. With that goal in mind, India slowly started tilting towards the West. Indian policymakers like to point out that China’s rise was to a large extent because of its rapprochement with the West after Deng Xiaoping took the reins of power.

It is indeed correct that close ties with the U.S. helped China to emerge as a big economic power. Chinese policymakers used the rivalry between Moscow and Washington to their benefit. However, it was the opening of the Chinese economy and its headlong plunge into the free market that provided the base for its peaceful rise as a global power. But it has to be noted that Beijing never gave up its “strategic autonomy” by signing military agreements with Washington and agreeing to the use of its bases by the U.S. military. No long-term military cooperation agreements were signed between China and the U.S.

From the 1990s onwards, India’s main focus was on getting closer to the West. Issues such as non-alignment and South-South Cooperation were slowly consigned to the back burner. The Third Front government led by H.D. Deve Gowda and later by I.K. Gujral, which was briefly in power in the mid 1990s, did try to bring the foreign policy back to its Nehruvian moorings. Since then, it has been “Westward ho” as far as foreign and defence policies were concerned. The nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998 had led to the imposition of strong technology sanctions on it by the West. To get out of the stranglehold of the sanctions, the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, bent over backwards to accommodate U.S. concerns.

New axis

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 the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II government and now under the Narendra Modi government, this wish has virtually become a reality. Among the countries India has the closest relations with now are the U.S. 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 Israel becomes an increasingly racist and fundamentalist state. India under the leadership of Modi has acquired the habit of abstaining from voting on United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli human rights abuses.

New Delhi is aware that the Israeli government has absolutely no intention of either giving the Palestinians an independent state or of stopping its aggrandisement of Palestinian territory. But these are of no consequence to the policymakers in New Delhi. The help that Israel provides in defence 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.

Israeli policy

It was under the first NDA government that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was 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 to Israel, at a time when the occupied territories are in turmoil.

High-level exchange of visits have taken place under UPA-I and II governments too, but it is Modi, an admirer of the Zionist policy of minority bashing, who has the dubious distinction of being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel . Iran, a leading member of NAM with which India has “special relations”, is among many countries in the region that are unhappy with India’s Israel policy. Senior Iranian leaders, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have criticised the India-Israel relationship and the current government’s policies on Kashmir. India is building a port in Chabahar, Iran. The country is an important source of energy supplies for India. There are indications that Iran is now in no mood to offer special deals in the energy sector to India.

It was Congress-led governments that laid the groundwork for expanded relations with Israel and the West. Seven years after the second Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, the Manmohan Singh government signed the controversial nuclear deal with Washington. It was preceded by a defence agreement which had the aim of bringing the militaries of the two countries closer. The annual Malabar military exercises involving the navies of the U.S., India and Japan are an outcome of the military and strategic relationship that has been growing since India signed the nuclear deal. The Defence Framework Agreement between the two countries was renewed for another 10 years in 2015.

U.S.’ Major Defence Partner

The U.S. has since designated India as a “Major Defence Partner”, which gives it the same privileges as that of other U.S. allies such as Israel in the purchase of advanced weaponry. Under another agreement, the India-U.S. Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, the two countries will jointly develop and produce armaments.

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 U.S. The agreement allows the U.S. to use Indian ports and military bases. The previous UPA government, despite being under tremendous pressure, had said no to the request for basing facilities for the U.S. military.

The Congress party termed the 2016 “logistics agreement” with the U.S. as a “fundamental departure” from India’s time-tested policy of “strategic military neutrality”. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was more forthright in its criticism, stating that the agreement “compromised Indian sovereignty” and was a surrender of the “strategic autonomy” the previous governments had guaranteed.

The NAM until the 1980s had voiced strong objections to U.S. military presence in the region, especially on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. After the Cold War ended, the Americans have established hundreds of military bases, most of them in Asia and Africa.

The current government is poised to sign two other major security agreements—the Communication and Information Security Memorandum (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). India is now being increasingly viewed as a front-line ally of the U.S. as it seeks to confront the growing economic and military clout of China. The Logistics Support Agreement, along with other important military sales agreements with the U.S., was signed after the Barack Obama administration announced U.S’ military “pivot to the East”.

The goal of the Obama administration was to build up a military and political alliance against China in the region along with Japan and India as the major bulwarks. The Modi government has lent its support to the U.S. position on the South China Sea and has participated in joint naval exercises with the U.S. and Japanese navies. India and the U.S. are sharing intelligence on Chinese ship and submarine movements in the Indian Ocean.

During his first official visit to Washington after Donald Trump took over the presidency, Prime Minister Modi pledged to further deepen the relationship between the two countries. Both the leaders said that the U.S.-India “global strategic” partnership would be further strengthened. Modi said the partnership with the U.S. was important “to protect our strategic interests” in the India-Pacific region. He hailed the U.S. as “our primary partner for India’s social and economic transformation”.

The Trump administration’s focus for the time being has shifted to North Korea and Iran. Being increasingly obsessed with trade and bolstering the U.S. economy, it is currently giving more attention to Beijing than to Delhi. Trump is looking to China to rein in North Korea. It took almost six months for the current U.S. President to meet with Modi while President Xi of China was among the first leaders to visit Washington under the new dispensation.

Relations with neighbours

There is little vocal support from the U.S. for India in the current standoff with China along the border. In fact, there is virtually no support for its position on the Doklam issue even in the South Asian neighbourhood.

Under Modi, for the first time in more than two decades, there is a danger of open hostilities breaking out once again with China. Most foreign policy observers realise that the Prime Minister made a blunder by ordering Indian troops to enter an area claimed by Bhutan. China claims that there is no dispute at all over Doklam as the boundary near the tri-junction of the India-China-Bhutan border was recognised under an 1890 treaty between China and Britain.

The incident in Doklam happened just after India and Pakistan were admitted as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). China and Russia are the leading members of the grouping which the West believes is aspiring to be an Asian NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). The Modi government started its innings with a pledge to improve relations with India’s immediate neighbours on a “neighbourhood first” policy. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was among the South Asian leaders to attend Modi’s swearing-in. Relations with Pakistan, however, started going downhill immediately after Modi took over. His petulant act of calling off Foreign Secretary-level talks in 2014 has resulted in a diplomatic stalemate.

Nepal is angry with the blockade India had imposed in 2015. Bhutan is chafing under Indian tutelage, which has now been exacerbated by the prolonged standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on its border. Bangladesh is unhappy with the Modi government’s inability to deliver on the Teesta waters deal. The government in Maldives is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to India.

Meanwhile, China is pumping in huge amounts of developmental aid to all the countries in South Asia. Given the size of its economy, India is in no position to compete. But the Indian government complains when Chinese companies get the contracts to build roads, ports and other infrastructural projects in the region. The protests are louder when Chinese naval ships and submarines pay rare visits to South Asian ports. Under the so-called Modi doctrine, the U.S. Navy is, of course, more than welcome in South Asian ports.

India is also a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping in which Russia and China play key roles. The three countries are expected to coordinate their moves in international fora on matters relating to important issues. Instead, India, it seems, prefers to be in the company of a declining superpower as it flexes its muscles thousands of miles away on the Asian continent.

The Chinese President has been trying for the past three years to make India adopt a more cooperative attitude to bolster bilateral relations. Instead, Modi seems to have taken umbrage to President Xi's flagship project—the One Belt One Road Initiative. At the Belt and Road summit held in Beijing in May this year, India was the only notable absentee. The U.S. and Japan, which had initially encouraged Modi’s intransigence on the issue, sent high-level delegations. Joining the Belt Road initiative would have helped India in sourcing energy from Central Asia cheaply through the ports of Bandar Abbas, Chabahar (both in Iran) and Gwadar (Pakistan).

Russia, India’s “all weather friend”, is obviously not very happy with the state of bilateral relations. New Delhi’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 U.S. 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 Indo-Soviet defence treaty that kept the U.S. and other powers from intervening on behalf of Islamabad.

Today, New Delhi and Moscow have divergent views on many subjects, including on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moscow wants the Taliban to be included in peace talks and has rejected Indian complaints about arms supplies and joint military exercises with Pakistan. The last military exercise was held in Gilgit-Baltistan, an area India claims is part of Jammu and Kashmir. The Modi government’s main objection to the Belt Road initiative is that part of the project passes through Gilgit-Baltistan.

U.N. membership

One of the Indian government’s stated goals is getting permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council. Successive governments 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 U.N., it needs the support of developing nations. These countries are an integral part of NAM. The 120-member NAM has been demanding the democratisation of the U.N’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 at the NAM summit in Venezuela last year was noted. He did not even bother to dispatch External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to the summit. Sushma Swaraj was in New York around the time to attend the U.N. General Assembly meet.

The leaders of Iran, South Africa and other leading NAM members attended the summit. Without the support of NAM members, there is very little chance of India ever making it to the high table of the U.N. India has not even succeeded to piggyback on American support into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Getting into the Security Council mainly with the backing of the West will be a tall order.

With his actions in the foreign policy arena in the past three years, Modi has shown that he is willing to 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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