This paper will provide a survey of India’s foreign policy since 1947 to the present day. It is divided into three distinct historical sections. The paper will also attempt to explain the underlying reasons for these the initial orientation and subsequent shifts that occurred over time. The first section deals with the period from 1947 to 1962, the second from 1962 to 1991 and the third from 1991 to the present. The choice of these three segments is far from arbitrary. The first period constituted the most idealistic phase of India’s foreign policy under the tutelage of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The second began with India’s disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. This period saw a gradual shift away from the early idealism that had characterized the country’s foreign policy and the adoption of an increasingly “self-help” approach to foreign policy while retaining elements of the Nehruvian rhetoric.i The third phase began with the end of the Cold War and the adoption of a more pragmatic foreign policy hewing closely to the principles of Realism.ii
The Sources of India’s Foreign Policy Systemic, national and decision-making factors helped shape post-independence India’s foreign policy choices.iii However, this paper will argue that India’s policymakers chose, quite deliberately to ignore systemic constraints and decided to pursue an explicitly ideational foreign policy and with mostly disastrous consequences.iv The pursuit of such a policy left India utterly unprepared to cope with a serious security threat from the People’s Republic of China and culminated in a disastrous border war in 1962. Only in the aftermath of the border war did India embark on a “self-help” strategy designed to guarantee its security.v The systemic constraints on India’s foreign policy stemmed from the onset of the Cold War which virtually coincided with India’s independence in 1947. Interestingly enough, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States evinced any great interest in India at the onset of the Cold War. The United States was virtually ignorant about India and had few cultural, strategic or economic links with the nascent nation.vi Consequently, in the immediate aftermath of India’s independence it paid scant attention to India. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union did not attach any strategic significance to India.vii This mutual lack of interest in India actually worked to India’s advantage as it gave the country considerable room for maneuver. However, at a regional level, the distribution of power placed India at a disadvantage. The other major regional state, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) posed a significant security threat to India one which it chose to ignore at its own peril.viii At a national level, the memories of colonial rule contributed to political culture which privileged the concept of national autonomy. The desire to maintain the greatest possible independence in the conduct of India’s foreign affairs was a sentiment that pervaded the country. Public opinion, to the limited extent that it was concerned with foreign affairs, would find any notion of deference to external powers to be intolerable.ix The country had been under the yoke of colonial rule for two hundred years and the weight of this colonial past was considerable.
Not surprisingly, India’s post-independence policymakers were acutely sensitive to the significance of this colonial legacy. Accordingly, they explicitly sought to forge a pathway that would keep India outside the ambit of the Cold War. Such a strategy was possible because anti-imperialist sentiments were widespread within the Indian polity across the political spectrum.x This strategy came to be known as non-alignment and Indian policymakers were at pains to distinguish it from “neutralism”.xi The real architect of this policy was Prime Minister Nehru. Even though he was temperamentally a Western liberal, he was deeply skeptical of the United States.xii In part, his skepticism was the consequence of his highly Anglicized personal and professional background. In effect, he had come to share the British upper class disdain for the United States. His views toward the Soviet Union were more ambivalent. He was also cognizant of the horrors of Stalin’s collectivist enterprise though admiring of the achievements of the forced-draught industrialization program. His partiality toward the USSR also stemmed from his own social democratic predilections.
At least two factors can be adduced to explain Nehru’s adoption of non-alignment as the lodestar of India’s foreign policy. First, he was acutely concerned about the opportunity costs of defense spending. Any involvement with the two emerging blocs, he feared, would draw India into the titanic struggle and divert critical resources from economic development.xiii Second, he was intent on maintaining India’s hard-won independence. Moving into the ambit of either superpower could compromise such freedom of maneuver.