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Why Non-Alignment has greater relevance in Modi’s India

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • June 29, 2014

    With the Chinese foreign minister’s June visit to New Delhi and interactions with the US president in the offing coupled with Prime Minister Modi’s proposed visit to Japan have all infused a new dynamism in Indian foreign policy. Along with it has emerged a new momentum in India’s neighbourhood with the renewed focus on revitalising the SAARC process. In the new context, however, have emerged questions on the efficacy of strategic autonomy and non-alignment in Indian foreign policy. There is a thinking that Modi needs to jettison the redundant policy of non-alignment that the UPA government professed in the post-Cold War garb of strategic autonomy.

    However, prior to any re-thinking on India’s foreign policy, it is necessary to shed the myopic and divisive categorization of Indian foreign policy into pro and anti-Nehruvian positions. Also, it is necessary to understand that in the present geo-political order where the US and China have distinctly emerged as rivals India has greater room for manoeuverability. Further, India does not require playing the role of a swing power akin to China in the 1970s and 80s. The reason is germane to the altered nature of global politics. India does not confront the ideologically pitted Cold War politics of the US and the USSR. Further, in the deepening trends of globalization, the economies of the US and China is deeply entwined precluding strict division of the global politics along pro or anti-US axis. Furthermore, the countries like the US, Pakistan and China have now come around advocating a common mission to end terrorism and focussing on economic integration and common prosperity.

    The global thrust on economic integration has certainly accrued greater space to India that the non-alignment actually stands for. It allows India to reach out to both the US and China without fear of taking sides and draw in the benefits from both of manufacturing, investments, trade and commerce. It has also enabled India to rope in Japan in developing its backward northeast region much to the irritation of the Chinese. In fact, both Japan and China are competing to strengthen economic ties with India. This gives India leverage to bargain for the best economic deals conducive to its national interest.

    In this emerging geo-political order where there is a common synergy among nations on growth and development, India under Modi does not require to jettison the non-alignment principles but to focus on fulfilling the two goals of domestic economic reform and external stability underscored in the principle. Simply put, non-alignment is essentially a route to great power status – a strategy that is independent of external forces by prioritizing national interest and ensuring strategic maneuverability. In fact, China appropriated the same strategy in 1982 under Deng Xiaoping underlined in the ‘independent foreign policy of peace’ and which resonates predominantly its foreign policy today.

    Indeed, Nehru had upheld the non-alignment to project India’s great power aspirations. In fact, non-alignment was the only and best principle available to Nehru in the post-Independent India confronted with precarious domestic and external environment. Internally, India was confronted with settling the fate of some five-hundred odd princely states. Coupled with this, was the linguistic movements that shook the very fabric of the nation. With the Pakistani invasion on the northern frontiers, the question of Kashmir loomed large. Also, the establishment of a Communist regime in China followed by its invasion of Tibet created a grave situation in the north. Above all, the emergence of bipolar politics in the post-War era put India in a precarious situation. After the hard earned independence, Nehru’s primary concern was economic rejuvenation to propel India to the ranks of a great power status. And for India’s rise the preeminent necessity was peace in the external frontier. In this context, Nehru propagated non-alignment that gave freedom of action to pursue national rejuvenation. This rationale also drove him to join hands with China knowing fully well the irredentist aspirations of the newly emerged Communist government.

    Clearly, non-alignment was born out of the difficult external and internal security conditions. However, this great power aspiration floundered on the 1962 debacle. This however, does not signal the failure of non-alignment. Rather, the quest for great power status failed because there was a disjuncture between theory and praxis. The weaknesses in the domestic front coupled with the external volatility of Cold War politics had derailed Nehru’s great power vision. Today India is better positioned. It is the third largest economy in Asia and fourth in the world. Also, externally, India does not require to take sides and instead engage both the US and China. More importantly, there is an alignment today that was absent in Nehru’s time between Modi’s dream of making India strong and prosperous and the external environment wedded to the principles of growth and prosperity.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.