The Indian foreign policy has been a series of knee-jerk reactions to events, some hard fought economic and political leverages and a swinging pendulum of successes and failures. The templates that prime ministers formed have been few and far in between. From the policies of non-alignment during the cold war to the current Modi doctrine, each prime minister has attempted to chart a foreign policy doctrine that balances their ideological moorings with the challenges of the world.
To understand the shifts of government policy in external affairs, one needs to just look at the manner in which successive governments from Jawaharlal Nehru formulated policies towards West Asia. By the time India gained independence, West Asia had largely been a protectorate or a mandate with parts being a direct colony, and was struggling to break the yoke of Western domination. From then to now, the region has witnessed changes that have been a challenge for the foreign policy of even the smallest, poorest and the remotest of countries.
Pandit Nehru was also the longest serving foreign minister of the country for seventeen years. As a foreign minister, he faced the dilemma of a partitioning Palestine, taking a moral stand on the issue of conditional independence of nations and most importantly, striking a balance between capitalism and communism during the Cold War. His leadership can be attributed to his education and his quest for knowledge. He not only studied world history, but attempted to pen it in his own unique framework.
He had not only understood the ethos of non-violence, but had also elaborated it as a theory that could be applicable to foreign policy. The Panchsheel Doctrine as well as the Non-Aligned Movement were the result of his understanding of global history and the principles of non-violence. Over the years, the ethos of Panchsheel continued to be reflected in world events even if there was no conscious attribution, finding expression in the position of the developing countries in the global North-South dialogue, and in other groupings.
It is to Nehru’s credit that the practice of democracy found a new example. He was aware of the unique nature of India’s freedom movement as being a beacon for other countries struggling for independence and a world emerging from a World War to a Cold War.
The economic system of part capitalism and part socialism in India as an alternate model was an experiment that brought him closer to other world leaders who backed him during the formation of the NAM movement.
The entire region of West Asia and North Africa is characterised by the attempted implementation of the socialistcapitalist economic model, along with a democratic and secular polity. As foreign minister, he was instrumental in seeing the leadership role of India being acknowledged during the partition of Palestine as well as during the first Arab- Israeli War.
According to Rosenau, “A leader’s beliefs about the nature of international arena and the goals that ought to be pursued therein, his or her peculiar intellectual strength and weakness for analysing information and making decisions, his or her past background and the extent of its relevance to the requirements of the role, his or her emotional needs and most of other personality traits — these are but a few of the idiosyncratic factors that can influence the planning and execution of foreign policy.”
It was to the credit of Nehru’s leadership that the region called ‘Middle East’ by the Europeans was given a unique and Asian identity. It was Nehru who first referred to the region as ‘West Asia’, a move appreciated by leaders and masses of the region till date.
Sadly, the foresight of Nehru did not translate into a precedent for foreign policy template. By the time the next set of stable leadership came to power in the country, the world had started throwing up a new set of challenges and the domestic determinants of foreign policy had started sidelining the need to emerge with a new vision for a new policy initiative.
From Gulzarilal Nanda to IK Gujral, the office of the prime minister and foreign minister were marked by trying to retain a stable government at home as well as continuing the Nehru legacy of non-alignment. The period from 1964- 1991 was marked by a successful and then failing experiment of part-socialism and part-capitalism on the domestic front, while the political scene was marked by swings from Left to Right wing politics.