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Non-Alignment as Indian Foreign Policy

non-alignment as indian foreign policy

Non-alignment is often termed as ‘Indian exceptionalism’. It has been India’s ‘grand strategy’ to protect its national interest. According to Martand Jha, in his article Decoded: India’s Role In A Multipolar World. Non-alignment remained a highly ambiguous term as the Indian elites never attempted to explain the substance of the policy of non-alignment. India never formally abandoned non-alignment but there has always been a question mark on the status of India as a non-aligned country. During the Cold War, India was in quasi-alliance with USSR, after the Cold War India strengthened strategic partnership with USA to the extent that there is a huge interoperability between their armed forces.

During the time of Cold War, the assertion of non-alignment as a choice by India was termed by John Foster Dulles, the then US Secretary of State, as immoral, an example of Indian opportunism. It was also an example of Indian utopianism. India was trying to gain the best of both worlds, without offering anything in return. India was soon to realize that there is no free lunch. Non-alignment was India’s arrogance to challenge US hegemony. India was successful to some extent as it could build a coalition of non-aligned nations. US policymakers have always been allergic to the idea of non-alignment. They never recognize the integrity of India’s status as a non-aligned country. They viewed India as team B of the USSR.

On the other hand, Stalin was also critical of the non-alignment in a very categorical manner. He held that ‘those who are not with us are against us’.

On a theoretical premise, Non-alignment was a new concept. At times, the scholars of international politics compared non-alignment with  1) the USA’s policy of isolationism or 2) The policy of neutrality or equidistance adopted by some countries.

However, it is to be noted that non-alignment should not be seen as an isolation or equidistance but rather principled distance. The concept of non-alignment of Nehru comes near to India’s concept of secularism. India declared that it would stay away from blocks. India will be strengthening international law and the United Nations. Pandit Nehru clarified to the Indian parliament that no government can sacrifice national interest, not for the sake of ideology or anything else. According to him, non-alignment was the policy most conducive to India’s national interest.

  • Collection of more than 3200 Previous Year Questions (1995-2023)
  • All questions divided into 10 Subjects
  • Subject further sub-divided into more than 75 topics
  • All answers according to official answer key

Views of scholars

Aparna Pandey in her book Chanakya To Modi, suggests that Nehru aspired to play a leadership role. India was weak militarily and economically. Non-alignment was an option that allowed India to 1) Maintain its independence yet be a part of world politics.  2) Maintain a relationship with both the superpowers without coercion.

K Natwar Singh, a former Indian diplomat suggests that Non-alignment was a doctrine. It was never a dogma. There was enough flexibility in the idea which allowed India to maintain its independence rather than becoming a camp follower. It would not have been wise if India had put ‘all eggs in one basket’.

Paul Power gives the domestic reason for adopting non-alignment. Domestic consensus in itself is a basis of sound foreign policy. Considering internal divisions e.g. Rightist favoured west, leftist favoured east, non-alignment gave Nehru a free hand in handling divisive domestic approach to foreign policy.

Henry Kissinger in his book ‘The World Order’ remarks that although non-alignment was irritating for the USA, it was the best course of action that India could have followed.

Present Status of Non-Alignment

Throughout its history, except for the phase of Pandit Nehru, India has never been genuinely non-aligned. (C Rajamohan). Non alignment during the Cold War became synonymous with ‘reflexive anti-Americanism of south block’.

After the Cold War, the growing strategic partnership with the USA again put a question mark on India’s integrity towards non-alignment. Among the political parties, Congress was favouring non-alignment till the cold war. However, both right and left were against it. After the end of the Cold War, both Congress and the right left non alignment, and the chief advocate of non alignment became left. The Congress maintained the rhetoric without substance. The rightist party BJP never had illusions with non-alignment. Vajapeyi had no hesitation in openly calling the USA and Israel as India’s natural allies. Similarly while describing the state of Indo-US relations, Prime Minister Modi had mentioned that the relationship has gone beyond ‘hesitations of history’. Similarly, Modi and the Israeli Prime Minister describe the relationship as a marriage conceived in heaven, evident in the recent outburst of emotions of Indian leaders on the attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Presently, we’re witnessing a shift in Indian foreign policy. From being too close to the USA, India reasserting ‘strategic autonomy’. In his 2018 speech at the Shangri La dialogue, Prime Minister Modi emphasized the importance of cooperation with Russia and China, on the other hand, he expressed India’s support for working with the USA to maintain peace and rule-based order in Indo-Pacific. The more significant was the Prime Minister praising Singapore for being ‘fair.’ ‘Singapore has taught the world that when nations do not take sides, stand on principles, they earn respect.’

We can say that India is trying to rebalance. According to South African experts, India is playing a delicate geopolitical game with the US, Russia and China as their influence is waxing and waning across the continent.

According to civil society experts, the non-alignment of the Cold War era should be changed into a multiple alignment known as non-alignment 2.0. Martand Jha suggests that India should come up with a clearer idea about the essence of its policy of non-alignment.

The essence of the policy is protecting India’s own national interest. If India joins any alliance that protects its core national interest, it does not contradict its status as non-aligned. Since non-alignment is a Nehruvian legacy, the rightist party and its officials prefer using the term strategic autonomy.

Non Alignment 2.0

In the year 2012, some eminent Indian scholars; like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, and Shyam Saran; released the Non-Alignment 2.0 report. The report identified the basic principles that should guide India’s foreign and strategic policy for the upcoming decade.

The purposes of the document were three-fold:  

  1. to lay out the opportunities that India enjoys in the international sphere;
  2. to identify the challenges and threats it is likely to confront; and
  3. to define the broad perspective and approach that India should adopt as it works to enhance its strategic autonomy in global circumstances that, for some time to come, are likely to remain volatile and uncertain.

The views it sets out are rooted in the conviction that the success of India’s internal development will depend decisively on how effectively we manage our global opportunities to maximize our choices—thereby enlarging our domestic options to the benefit of all Indians.

The report deals with India’s approach towards the ‘Asian theatre,’ the international order, hard power, internal security, non-conventional security issues like energy and nuclear options, the knowledge and information foundations of power as well as the state and democracy.

The report emphasises that for its strategic and foreign policy to be successful, India must sustain domestic economic growth, social inclusion and democracy. Its approach must be to secure the maximum space possible for its own economic growth in order for the country to become reasonably prosperous and equitable. Although India’s competitors will put roadblocks in its path, “the foundations of India’s success will depend on its developmental model.”

It appears that the report was not so influential in affecting Indian foreign policy, particularly after the rightist party assumed leadership in 2014. Since then, India’s approach has often been described as a multi-alignment or issue-based alliance.

  • Collection of more than 3200 Previous Year Questions (1995-2023)
  • All questions divided into 10 Subjects
  • Subject further sub-divided into more than 75 topics
  • All answers according to official answer key

Multi-Alignment/ Issue-based Alliance

We can also say that NAM itself, as an expression of Indian foreign policy, has evolved. Non-alignment had given way to multi-alignment. However, multi-alignment has not found universal favour, since it may convey the impression of opportunism, whereas India seeks strategic convergences.

Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has stated that India is ideologically non-aligned, but can seek issue-based alignment. That gives it the capacity to be flexible and maintain decisional autonomy. He adds that hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods or multiple engagements of the future. But there is no getting away from it in a multipolar world.

India’s External Affairs Minister and a former diplomat S. Jaishankar, describes the present foreign policy of India as an ‘issue-based alliance’, building strong partnerships with like-minded states on specific subjects. India, he says will have to “nimbly expand the space to pursue its interests and not be caught flatfooted by dogma”. The nation will have to position itself by optimizing ties with all major players and this will include “cultivating America, steadying Russia, managing China, enthusing Japan and attending to Europe”.

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