While looking at India’s foreign policy [IFP], one of the foremost aspects that one studies is the Non-Alignment Movement. This is because it invariably shaped India’s vision and international behavior for long periods of time.
Primarily, there were three kinds of factors that contributed to the choice of IFP. These were Personal, National and Systemic. At a personal level, Nehru sought to pursue an ideational foreign policy and to this end he supported multilateral institutions, cut down defence spending and advocated the process of decolonisation. This doctrine of his called for going down a diplomatic path free from the dominance of superpowers but over the years, in practice, the policy proved to be more critical of American policies over those of the Soviet Union.
The policy was in keeping with the national experience of colonialism. To this end, India was reluctant to limit its foreign policy options through an alignment with either superpower. The moral stance of NAM was in keeping with India’s historical and cultural legacies as well as Gandhian heritage.
At the systemic level, the foreign policy made sense, for it enabled a materially weak state to play a role more significant than expected. It allowed for the turning of ‘limitation into asset’. Even though this worked well for India at the global level and allowed the country to play a significant role in UN peacekeeping operations, the policy fell short on a number of occasions. The stubborn opposition to defence spending led to a drastic ill preparedness of Indian military which in turn culminated in a major defeat following the dispute and war of 1962 with China.
Amidst the war and its aftermath, the three factors contributed again to a shift in IFP and security policies. At a personal level, Nehru’s hitherto unchallenged status in the political arena came under fire. There were demands of political opposition and also the abandonment of NAM, but despite these calls, the policy makers did not abandon NAM formally. On the national front, the political outcry and perceived threat from China led to a significant military modernisation programme, despite Nehru’s earlier reluctance. At the systemic level, India found support from US during and also after the China crisis.
India’s military modernisation helped India’s military intervention in East Pakistan during the war of 1971, which led to the break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of India as a dominant power in the subcontinent. However, personal factors (some of Indira Gandhi’s economic policies), national factors (oil crisis) and systemic factors (material weakness), all prevented it from playing a significant role in global affairs.
It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War that India’s foreign policy could undergo a shift and boast of a new relevance. As always, an amalgam of personal, national and systemic factors induced these new changes. On the national front, there was a financial crisis while systemic forces such as the inability to rely on the Soviet Union etc led to dramatic transformation.