Talking about Jawaharlal Nehru's foreign policy, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, the Labour MP from Britain, is reported to have said at a recent discussion in New Delhi that it “gave India an exaggerated sense of self-importance and moral self-righteousness”. Further, the first Prime Minister of the Indian Republic is said to have “developed Indian foreign policy as though he was speaking for the whole of Asia, homogenising the entire continent and ignoring internal conflicts”. About Indira Gandhi's handling of foreign policy, Lord Parekh's view (as reported) was that it lacked “strategic thinking”, that her policy “had no real desire to play a global role and shape the world”. Essentially, “her interests were more regional”.

Global versus regional perspective

In short, therefore, the burden of the story is that both the father and the daughter did not have a “global” perspective: While one took on the Asian mantle (Bandung, etc), the other focussed on “regional” interests (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). The problem is that while this may be a fair enough portrayal of the foreign policies of the two Indian leaders, none of them was ignored by the Big Powers of the time, namely, the US and the Soviet Union. The question is: could they have ignored India in the Cold War era when getting the important “fence-sitters” on to one side or the other was an important strategic objective for both Moscow and Washington?

Indeed, when one talks about non-alignment, there is nothing “Asian” or “regional” about it. The very concept was a product of the bipolar world that was then holding away over international relations and was, in fact, a “global” response to the Cold War imperatives of both the Red and Blue (and Pink) sides. During Indira Gandhi's time, the tilt towards Moscow was much more pronounced than it ever was during her father's era. She jettisoned the essentials of non-alignment and gave notice that she was more Moscow's friend than Washington's, the carefully thought-out implications being nothing if not “strategic”.

A stroke of genius

In fact, Indira Gandhi's “regional” foreign policy led to the creation of Bangladesh, dismembering in the process post-Partition Pakistan. If one considers India-Pakistan ties to be more strategic than regional in nature, as far as the rest of the world is concerned (the debates at the UN certainly impart to it a “strategic” gloss with diverse fallout instead of a passing “regional” hue), the late Indian Prime Minister's eastern initiative was a stroke of genius, giving sub-continental diplomacy a totally different look compared to what it was for the previous quarter-century.

The clear point is that both Nehru and his daughter, in their different historical circumstances, seem to have played their cards sensibly as far as foreign policy is concerned, the net result of their stewardship being a growing relevance of the Indian Republic in international affairs. India's current place and role in the world rests solidly on the foundation built by these two modern giants in the Indian pantheon of political leaders, a contribution which we as Indians cannot afford to ignore.

‘Strategic failure'

If Indira Gandhi and her father have to be pulled up for a “strategic” failure, one, perhaps, has to point to their domestic economic policies. Somehow or the other, their framework for national economic development failed to release the productivity of Indian capital and entrepreneurship (which we are witnessing today), their focus being on the distributive aspects of a highly unimpressive rate of GDP growth. Even so, this “failure” has played a critical role in shaping the present Indian democratic framework in that it has adequately strengthened the socialistic-base of Indian society, in general, at a time when the fruits of rapid growth have to be distributed across all segments of the population as equitably as possible.


(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 13, 2010)
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