India’s non-aligned policy

18 January 2010

Contrary to some current criticisms, non-alignment was a logical, rational and ethical response to polarisation and inequity, that allowed India to pursue its national interest while providing moral-political leadership to the global South.


Two relatively young ministers of state (MoS) in the Manmohan Singh government have distinguished themselves by their contrarian stances and penchant for controversy. They are educated, intellectually capable, tech-savvy and articulate. They are also extremely opinionated, ambitious, narcissistic and exhibitionistic. They have tried to shape policies in their respective fields in a broadly pro-Western and pro-United States direction.

These men are environment and forests MoS Jairam Ramesh and external affairs MoS Shashi Tharoor. Ramesh has executed many policy turns to end up with pro-corporate and pro-Western results. He is responsible, with Prime Minister Singh, for India’s signature of the disastrous and collusive Copenhagen Accord between the US, BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) and a few other states. The Accord sets its face against fighting climate change effectively and urgently, and absolves all major emitters of their responsibility.

Tharoor was imposed on the Congress Party from on top after he lost the election for the UN secretary general’s post. He has consistently courted controversy through his speeches and messages. Tharoor regarded the official bungalow allotted to him as a dump and checked into a 5-star hotel, at public expense. He moved out only when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee publicly reminded him of the government’s commitment to austerity and said it won’t foot the bill.

Tharoor complained about the rule that ministers should travel economy class in airlines—in his words, go “cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows.” He challenged his own government’s tougher visa regime by saying that it wouldn’t improve security, and that the November 2008 Mumbai killers “had no visas.”

Through his messages—designed to trigger controversy—Tharoor is cultivating a constituency to build up his political career. In doing so, he breaches the democratic principle of ministers’ collective responsibility to the cabinet. Tharoor must decide whether he’s a responsible politician, or will behave like a frivolous college kid.

Tharoor’s latest target was Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-aligned policy. He was commenting on a talk by an academic, which criticised its basis in “misplaced righteousness.” Regardless of this judgement’s merit, Tharoor’s right to express dissident views in a semi-academic forum must be defended.

However, how valid is Tharoor’s view that while Indian foreign policy, shaped by the special contribution by Gandhi and Nehru pertaining to “our civilisational heritage,” enhanced India’s standing, it “also earned us the negative reputation of running a moralistic commentary on world affairs”? Although Tharoor has tried to “balance” the two perceptions, he’s inclined to the negative view.

In his 2007 book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, Tharoor disparages non-alignment and economic planning. He says Nehru “based his nationalism on a complete rejection of all things British and all their works. His letters…reveal greater sympathy for the ‘extremists’ in the Indian National Congress than for the ‘moderates.’ ”

The first proposition is factually false. Nehru took a great deal from the British, including Enlightenment ideas of progress and science, modernism, political liberalism and, above all, Westminster-style democracy. The second proposition distorts reality. Congress “extremists” were not flaming radicals, but plain nationalists who wanted full independence rather than “home rule.”

Tharoor is right to say that Nehru saw imperialism “as the logical extension of international capitalism, for which he therefore felt a profound mistrust.” Indeed, British colonialism couldn’t be separated from capitalism’s predatory pursuits. Nehru was rightly “sceptical of Western claims to stand for freedom and democracy when India’s historical experience of colonial oppression and exploitation appeared to bear out the opposite.”

But Tharoor is wrong to say Nehru established “a moral equivalence between the two rival power blocs” into which the world split after World War II—NATO led by the US, and the socialist bloc led by the USSR. Tharoor is even more wrong to think that while non-alignment might have given India self-confidence, the Indian people “might have fared better in alliance with the West.”

Tharoor’s view of non-alignment — in line with what’s becoming fashionable within Indian conservative opinion — is profoundly mistaken. It misrepresents the post-War world.

By the mid-20th century, only a handful of colonies had become independent. Much of Asia and most of Africa was still under the colonial yoke, and the imperial European influence in much of Latin America was still very powerful.

The world was extremely skewed, with income differentials of 1:30 between rich and poor countries. It was also in the grip of conflicts driven by the Cold War. Mass poverty, widespread deprivation, illiteracy and severe underdevelopment prevailed within the international order marked by unequal terms of trade and rising corporate domination.

Even international institutions were exclusionary. The United Nations was set up by just 51 countries.

Non-alignment was a logical, rational and ethical response to this polarisation and pervasive iniquity. Non-alignment didn’t mean passive neutrality, but active pursuit of options which accelerate decolonisation, reduce inequality and expand the space for the self-reliant development of the former colonies.

Third World countries which chose to align with the Western bloc turned into Banana Republics, or lost out on both democratisation and development and became anaemically dependent on the West. Nehru called them “Coca-Cola countries.”

India’s non-aligned policy allowed it to pursue its national interest while providing moral-political leadership to the global South. Its genius lay in recognising the limitations of both the Western and Soviet models and trying to devise an independent model for India, with a different notion of global power.

India commanded prestige because it exposed the West’s hypocrisy in claiming to uphold freedom and democracy while perpetuating an unjust world order. But India didn’t fall into the trap of tailing the Soviet bloc. Nehru wasn’t uncritical of the Soviet Union and its agenda of conventional balance-of-power politics and achieving military prowess through nuclear weapons. Nehru approached the West for help to build India’s first modern steel mill. It’s only after the West refused that India asked the USSR to build the Bhilai steel plant.

However, Nehru saw the value of the agenda of social and economic rights, which the socialist bloc upheld — in distinction to the West’s expedient emphasis on civil and political rights.

The USSR supported development programmes in Third World countries. Despite internal problems, it acted until the late 1970s as a countervailing force to the West, taming capitalism and promoting a welfare state there.

Non-alignment was not a “moralistic running commentary” on the world. It did have a strong moral content, but it also creatively explored different economic, diplomatic and strategic options and promoted the peaceful resolution of conflicts, greater equality and more development space for the South.

This doesn’t argue that Nehru was infallible. He misjudged China and the folly of the USSR’s 1956 invasion of Hungary. But he had a great vision.

Non-alignment, along with the other pillars of the Nehruvian consensus — democracy, secularism and self-reliant equitable development — retains much of its relevance. Today’s world is even more conflict-ridden and unequal than in 1950, with income differentials of 90:1.

If India is to do any good to the world, it must promote global equality, justice and peace, and speak for the poor and underprivileged — and not ape the West.