Five Eras of Indian Foreign Policy: From Idealism to Nationalism

India’s foreign policy has undergone five distinct eras: idealism, realism, adventurism, pragmatism, and the current nationalism era. These eras reflect the changing priorities and responses to global dynamics, making India an influential player in shaping the geopolitical landscape

By Sutanu Guru
  • Indian foreign policy has come a long way since the early 1950s when the country was newly independent and Jawaharlal Nehru towered over India
  • P V Narashima Rao dismantled the “license-permit raj” first introduced by the economic policies of Nehru and then reinforced by Indira Gandhi
  • Unlike Nehru, Shastri was not very enamoured with socialism and sought home grown solutions for problems. He initiated the ‘Green Revolution’
  • the “West” had no leverage over India when it came to its security, Indira Gandhi went ahead with nuclear tests and announced that India was now an “atomic” power

EVER since India hosted the G-20 Summit, there has been much debate about the role of foreign policy in shaping the New India. Even habitual India sceptics and cynics now acknowledge the emergence of India as a formidable geo-economic and geo-political player in the world. In terms of economics and business, India is already the fifth largest economy in the world and will become the third largest economy in a few years. The massive and growing consumer market it offers is too tempting for multinationals to ignore. Not surprisingly, countries are reshaping their foreign policies towards India keeping this factor in mind.
In terms of geo-politics, the G-7 nations and their allies are well aware that they are now in an adversarial relationship with China and India is the only country that has the potential to prevent China from completely dominating Asia. Foreign policy initiatives, like the Quad that involves the US, Japan, Australia and India are a step in that direction. That doesn’t at all mean that ties between the G-7, its allies and India will be hunky dory. There will inevitably be differences, friction and tension on issues where interests do not converge.

Strained Relations with Canada

The virtual collapse of relations between India and Canada in recent times is proof that things can and will go wrong every now and then. The Prime Minister of Canada has levelled and repeated incredible allegations against India claiming there are “credible allegations” of Indian agencies being involved in the June 2023 murder of fugitive terror accused and self-confessed Khalistani Harjit Singh Nijjar in Canada when he was outside a Gurudwara. In a muscular display of the new “nationalism” driven foreign policy, India has refused to take it lying down and has, apart from terming the allegations as absurd and branding Canada as a safe haven for terrorists and criminal gangs, suspended issuing visas to Canadian nationals. This has indeed put G-7 and NATO allies of Canada like the USA, UK and Australia in a tight spot. They are treaty bound to support Canada, however preposterous the allegations may be. At the same time, they cannot burn all bridges with India by going the whole hog with Canada.
This dilemma was on full display, during the 2023 United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said his country is deeply concerned and has urged India to cooperate so that accountability is fixed. Within a few hours of saving this, he also held serious talks with Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and the Foreign Ministers of Japan and Australia over the near-term goals of the Quad. But then that is foreign policy where grey is the norm rather than black or white. Sooner or later, the crisis in the relationship between Canada and India will be resolved or the can will be kicked down the road if Justin Trudeau decides to remain stubborn. There will be some unpleasant exchanges between India and the Five Eye nations (USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Yet, India will remain too important a nation for the Anglosphere foreign policy establishment to either ignore or belittle it to the point of mutual hostility.

Foreign Policy Evolution

Even for Indian foreign policy establishment, these countries are critical for constructive engagement as it towards becoming a middle income country and a global power in its own right. To that extent, Indian foreign policy has come a long way since the early 1950s when the country was newly independent and Jawaharlal Nehru towered over India like a Colossus in a manner that even Narendra Modi doesn’t dominate India in the 2020s. There will be overlaps and there are no tightly separated and contained compartments.

In terms of geo-politics, the G-7 nations and their allies are well aware that they are now in an adversarial relationship with China and India is the only country that has the potential to prevent China from completely dominating Asia. Foreign policy initiatives, like the Quad that involves the US, Japan, Australia and India are a step in that direction

But one can safely argue that since independence in 1947, Indian foreign policy has gone through five distinct eras. The first was the era of idealism between 1947 and 1962 under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The second was the era of realism since 1962 that saw Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. The third brief phase was the era of adventurism when Rajiv Gandhi first became the inheritor of Indira Gandhi and then the Prime Minister. The fourth era could be described as one of pragmatism in which P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh served as Prime Ministers. The fifth era that we are witnessing at the moment can be called one of nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As emphasised earlier, there have been overlaps and one defining pillar of foreign policy of an era did not completely exclude other pillars. For instance, it would be childish to suggest that nationalism was not a factor in the kind of idealistic foreign policy that Nehru practiced. Yet, one theme dominated these five separate eras as subsequent analysis will reveal.

Idealism: The Nehruvian Era

Even his critics acknowledge that Jawaharlal Nehru was considered a global statesman. India had won independence soon after the end of the Second World War. The era of Imperialism and colonial exploitation and plunder was coming to an end. Newly independent nations became what is called the Third World. Leaders and citizens of these newly free countries were infused with hopes for a better future ahead through rapid economic growth. There was the First World led by the US and its allies. Then there was the Second World led by the Soviet Union and its allies. Both the first and second worlds were engaged in a fierce and ideological Cold War with both aiming for global dominance. It was in this context that the foreign policy of India was designed and implemented by Nehru. It was also a product of his own contradictions. He instinctively identified with the liberalism and free speech visible in countries like the US and UK. Yet, he also deeply admired the manner in which Stalin had transformed the Soviet Union from a poor agrarian economy to a heavily industrialised one despite the oppressive nature of his regime.

A lot of newly independent nations decided to become either American or Soviet allies. But Jawaharlal Nehru had other ideas. He did not want the Third World beholden to either the US-led or the Soviet-led bloc. Thus was born the first manifestation of the “idealistic” foreign policy that Nehru pursued. He, along with leaders like Abdal Gamel Nassau of Egypt and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia formed what came to be known as the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM). Non-alignment became a kind of mantra for Nehru. He passionately advocated a world in which all countries, rich or poor, had an equal say in global affairs. His streak of idealism made him genuinely believe that the world could become a more equal planet in the future. Unfortunately for him, global affairs have always been dictated not by idealism and morality but by the sheer weight of economic and military power.

For individual countries, idealism is used merely as a rhetorical tool even if it ruthlessly pursues strategic national interests. To that extent, the idealism displayed by Nehru was admirable; but was destined to fail when confronted with global power politics. Ironically, it was his compatriot Mao Ze Dong who rhetorically used “equality” and the “proletariat” as he ruthlessly pursued what he believed were the strategic national interests of China. Even more ironic, it was Mao who crashed and burnt the foreign policy idealism of Nehru. Sometimes, idealism bordered on naïveté. Particularly when it came to China. The hard-nosed Sardar Patel made a good team with Nehru, cautioning the first among equals when the latter pursued a policy contrary to what Patel thought were India’s national interests. China figured prominently in this.

In a muscular display of the new “nationalism” driven foreign policy, India has refused to take it lying down and has, apart from terming the allegations as absurd and branding Canada as a safe haven for terrorists and criminal gangs, suspended issuing visas to Canadian nationals. This has indeed put G-7 and NATO allies of Canada like the USA, UK and Australia in a tight spot

In 1950, China invaded and militarily occupied Tibet, which had been an independent kingdom for centuries. In November 1950, Patel wrote a letter to Nehru that turned out to be ominously prescient. He wrote: “The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions. My own feeling is that at a crucial period, they managed to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence, the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet.

The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama.

Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions…This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. With the Communist mentality of “whoever is not with them being against them”, this is a significant pointer, of which we have to take due note.” Patel died one month after formally warning Nehru about China. For a decade after that Nehru aggressively pursued “Panchsheel” and “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” even as his counterpart plotted against India. The bitter fruits were born in 1962 when China inflicted such a humiliating military victory on India that it still haunts the nation. That humiliation also signalled the end of the era of idealism in Indian foreign policy.

Realism: Pragmatism in Foreign Policy

When Nehru died broken in spirit in May, 1964, the diminutive Lal Bahadur Shastri was elected as the Prime Minister. Unlike the aristocratic Nehru, Shastri was steeped in native resilience and realism that is the hallmark of ordinary Indians. The process of arming the Indian military to prevent 1962 like debacle that has started in fits and starts under Nehru was pursued aggressively by Shastri. Unlike Nehru, Shastri was not very enamoured with socialism and sought home grown solutions for Indian problems. He had no hesitation in kick-starting the process of ‘Green Revolution’ even if the help for it by way of modern technology came from the “Imperial” West. This realism was reflected when he persuaded the legendary Verghese Kurien to lead the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and kick-start a White Revolution.
It was during the 1965 war with Pakistan that the hard-nosed realism of Shastri was on full display. The only rhetorical point he made was the inspiring slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” that replaced the mythical “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” slogan of the 1950s. Pakistan had the initial advantage during the initial phase of the war. It had superior fighter jets, tanks and artillery supplied by the United States. For some time, it did appear as if Pakistan might end up capturing Kashmir. That is when the realistic Shastri and his military advisors showed their hard-nosed attitude. The Indian army opened two fronts along the Rajasthan and Punjab border, completely taking Pakistan by surprise. So surprised were the Pakistani generals that Indian Army troops were knocking on the doors of Lahore when pressure from both the US and Soviet led bloc led to a ceasefire between the two countries. To the credit of Shastri, China did not take advantage of this war to capture even more Indian territory even though it openly supported Pakistan. Unfortunately, Shastri died in January 1966 in Tashkent.

A lot of newly independent nations decided to become either American or Soviet allies. But Jawaharlal Nehru had other ideas. He did not want the Third World beholden to either the US-led or the Soviet-led bloc. Thus was born the first manifestation of the “idealistic” foreign policy that Nehru pursued

Indira Gandhi’s Foreign Policy

But his successor Indira Gandhi retained the realism pillar of foreign policy. Many commentators now say that Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy made India excessively dependent on the Soviet Union and triggered hostility in the West. That would be a shallow reading of the geopolitical realities of that era. The fact is, the US was intensely hostile towards India since the late 1960s. Its primary foreign policy goal at that time was the re-establishment of relations with Mao’s China which had fallen out with its mentor Soviet Union. Pakistan acted as the broker between America and China. In return, the US openly supported Pakistan vis a vis India and turned a blind eye to the atrocities being committed by the Pakistani military in East Pakistan, which was to soon become Bangladesh. When Indira traveled to the US, the President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger were implacably hostile to her, including abusing her with cuss words in their private conversations. No help or support came from Western European countries that were NATO allies of the US. The only “realistic” option was to keep paying lip service to non-alignment even as Indira signed a long-term strategic partnership deal with the Soviet Union months before the war with Pakistan in 1971. By any yardstick, that was a master stroke of realistic foreign policy. Since the “West” had no leverage over India when it came to its security concerns, she went ahead with nuclear tests and announced to the world in 1974 that India was now an “atomic” power – a message received loud and clear by the foreign policy establishment in China.

The Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai threatened for a while to go back to the “peaceful idealism” of the Nehru era. But better sense prevailed. In any case, so best was the Desai regime with internal squabbles and differences that foreign policy was hardly a priority area. When Indira came back to power after the collapse of the Janata Party government, realism once again took centre stage. In her post 1979 tenure, Indira made foreign policy decisions that significantly improved economic and military ties with countries like the US, UK and France. But by then, an even more ambitious inheritor Rajiv Gandhi was set to forge the shortest-lived era of Indian foreign policy: adventurism.

Adventurism and Immaturity

The tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, the fourth-generation leader from the Nehru-Gandhi clan did not last beyond five years. He lost power in the 1989 Lok Sabha mainly due to allegations of corruption and a possible return to power in 1991 never happened because he was tragically assassinated by a suicide bomber of the LTTE. Yet, short as his rule was, it displayed distinct streaks of adventurism mingled with a bit of immaturity. He is perhaps the only Prime Minister of India who has publicly announced a decision to sack the foreign secretary of the country during an interaction with media persons. To sack the person who is leading the foreign policy establishment of your country for whatever reasons was surely not a sign of maturity. This streak of an adventurist foreign policy was on full display on three occasions when Rajiv was Prime Minister. The first was widely applauded.

Hands with earth (Elements of this image furnished by NASA)

Nehru passionately advocated a world in which all countries, rich or poor, had an equal say in global affairs. His streak of idealism made him genuinely believe that the world could become a more equal planet in the future. Unfortunately for him, global affairs have always been dictated not by idealism and morality but by the sheer weight of economic and military power

Operation Cactus

In 1998, the tiny south Asian island nation of Maldives witnessed a coup that overthrew the elected government. The coup was backed by the Sri Lanka based terrorist outfit LTTE that had sympathisers of the “Tamil” cause across the world. The Rajiv Gandhi government acted with alacrity. In what became famous as Operation Cactus, special forces of the Indian military along with Indian Navy vessels entered the capital Male, rescued the ousted President and captured the coup leaders. This was appreciated and praised across the world as a fine symbol of proactive foreign policy whereby a country acted decisively to protect its interests in the neighbourhood.

Operation Pawan and Sri Lanka

But two other “proactive” policies were not as successful and have often behind lingering suspicions. The first was Operation Pawan, the name given to the Indian Peace Keeping Force that was sent to Sri Lanka to sort out a civil war there. Since the early 1980s, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) led by V Prabhakaran had emerged not just as a potent terrorist outfit that could strike in Sri Lanka and even in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu at will, it had also acquired formidable military prowess. It de facto controlled the Tamil majority northern Sri Lanka and waged a civil war with the Sinhala majority government of Sri Lanka. In what appears to be a needless move in hindsight, the government of Rajiv Gandhi seemingly signed a deal with both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE and decided to send a large contingent of Indian armed forces personnel, including the Army and the Air Force to enforce peace in the troubled nation. Unfortunately, both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka government reneged and betrayed the armed forces of India. After two years of unsuccessful guerrilla warfare with the LTTE where it lost thousands of troops, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrew in late 1989, without making any dent on the civil war.

The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and even the Sri Lanka President Ranasinghe Premadasa who signed the deal with Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1993. Prabhakaran was eventually killed by the Sri Lanka military in 2009 as they crushed the LTTE led civil war. But suspicions in Sri Lanka about the role of India persisted for a long time.

Economic Blockade on Nepal

The third act of foreign policy adventurism of Rajiv Gandhi was even more needless with consequences that still hurt Indian interests. By 1989, it was clear that Rajiv Gandhi had become quite unpopular in large sections of India. Allegations related to corruption in the Bofors deal had created a groundswell of anger against his regime. Most commentators had figured out that Rajiv Gandhi would lose the Lok Sabha elections due in late 1989. In the midst of all this, perhaps to assert his “nationalist” credentials, Rajiv Gandhi decided to impose an economic blockade on Nepal over differences that could have been sorted out through negotiations. For millennia, India and Nepal have shared religious, cultural and civilisation ties. The economic blockade that stopped the supply of fuel, food and medicines shocked the Nepalis. There was so much anger in the country over the bullying by India that many Nepalis still resent the big brotherly attitude of India. The adventurist folly also opened the doors for China to step in and create a formidable space for itself in Nepali polity. By the time Rajiv Gandhi lost power, his adventurist foreign policy was the least of the problems. India had been living beyond its means and the day of reckoning was not far off. Soon, India was on the verge of bankruptcy that triggered the fourth era of pragmatism in Indian foreign policy.

Terrorism sponsored by Pakistan in Kashmir was so serious that it seemed as if the state was lost. Neither the US nor its Western allies were in any mood to help India over Kashmir. Instead, they resorted to hectoring and lecturing India on human rights and minority persecution. The Islamic bloc OIC openly supported Pakistan over Kashmir

Pragmatism: A New Approach

Most commentators praise P V Narashima Rao for the swiftness with which he dismantled the “license-permit raj” first introduced by the economic policies of Nehru and then reinforced in draconian ways by Indira Gandhi. That single act unleashed the “animal spirits” of Indian entrepreneurs and also started reintegrating India with the global economy. Yet, the pragmatic manner in which he reshaped Indian foreign policy is no less remarkable. By 1991, India was virtually bankrupt. Its strategic ally the Soviet Union had started rapidly disintegrating. Terrorism sponsored by Pakistan in Kashmir was so serious that it seemed as if the state was lost. Neither the US nor its Western allies were in any mood to help India over Kashmir. Instead, they resorted to hectoring and lecturing India on human rights and minority persecution. The Islamic bloc OIC openly supported Pakistan over Kashmir. East Asia and ASEAN, which had been rebuffed by India during the 1960s, had become an immensely successful economic bloc and were not interested in India. The entire world order had changed and it appeared as if India stood alone and isolated.

Amidst all this, the first significant foreign policy shift of Rao was to establish full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. To support the Palestinian cause, India had stubbornly refused ties with Israel, not that such gestures cut any ice with the Islamic nations that constitute the OIC. This created ripples in India’s foreign policy establishment. There was much concern over how oil-supplying nations like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran would react or if they might become even more hostile towards India. In hindsight, this turned out to be a landmark decision.

Rao also launched the Look East policy and focused on foreign policy initiatives with East Asian countries. He was wise enough to hunker down in the face of hectoring by G-7 countries and refused to indulge in any angry rhetoric. One of his milestone successes was sending Atal Bihari Vajpayee along with Farooq Abdullah to defend India’s stance on Kashmir during a conference in Geneva. The byword for Rao was strategic patience and pragmatism.

Russia under Boris Yelstin was a de facto American ally during the 1990s and it refused to supply cryogenic technology badly needed for the development of ballistic missiles. The US also exerted so much pressure that India under Rao was forced to put off a planned nuclear test. But there was no public rancour displayed by India’s foreign policy establishment. Patience and pragmatism defined Rao and his foreign policy.

Continuation of Pragmatism

Atal Bihari Vajpayee continued with the same vein of pragmatism but added a streak of nationalism by going nuclear in 1998. This led to a series of sanctions against India but also triggered serious talks between the US and India that eventually resulted in a strategic partnership between them. Like Rao, Vajpayee significantly enhanced engagement with East Asia. His foreign policy also included a pursuit of strategic economic interests. It was the same with his successor Dr Manmohan Singh. Economic interests had become an integral element of India’s foreign policy. The big foreign policy achievement of Dr Singh was the nuclear deal with the United States which enabled India to officially join the club of nuclear nations. His regime was also unique in the sense that a foreign policy issue led to a no-confidence motion against the government as opposition parties protested against the nuclear deal. But by the end of his second term, commentators (perhaps a bit unfairly) started calling his foreign policy “timid”, particularly when it came to Pakistan. His successor Narendra Modi has changed all that by making nationalism the signature tune of his foreign policy.

Nationalism: The Modi Era

All Prime Ministers have been nationalistic in their own ways. But Narendra Modi has linked nationalism with foreign policy in a unique manner. Three things stand out in the personal conduct of foreign policy by Prime Minister Modi. The first is the sheer frequency with which he has been visiting a diverse range of countries to promote Indian interests. For instance, after his state visit to the United States, he went on an official visit to Egypt before coming back to India. Similarly, Modi went on an important visit to Greece after attending the BRICS Summit in South Korea. And he visited Indonesia to interact with leaders of ASEAN countries hour’s foreign the start of the G20 Summit where India was the host. The second thing that stands out is the energetic manner in which he keeps engaging with the diaspora in various countries. His diaspora events have become legendary. Critics call them out as kitschy and stage managed to promote Modi as a brand. But there can be little doubt that his energetic interactions lead to a sense of pride amongst diaspora Indians as he lavishes praise on them. Don’t forget, India gets more than $ 80 billion a year as remittances from the diaspora.

The third thing that stands out is the relentless manner in which he engages with successful entrepreneurs, tycoons and CEOs of large multinational companies. No other Prime Minister in India has wooed global capital as constantly as Modi. This foreign policy emphasis has paid off as India has become an important destination for multinationals who want to reduce their dependence on China as a manufacturing base and create alternative supply chains.

There can be no doubt that these foreign policy efforts will have long term consequences that will benefit India. But some say the bigger foreign policy success of Modi is the manner in which his team has handled Pakistan. Like his predecessors, Modi too offered the olive branch to Pakistan. But when cross border terrorism did not stop, Modi completely changed his policy towards Pakistan. First came the surgical strikes inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir after terrorists had attacked a military camp in Uri. Then came relentless pressure imposed quietly through global institutions like FATF that have frequently put Pakistan in the grey list of terror supporting countries. Finally, his foreign policy mantra vis a vis Pakistan is that talks and terror do not go together. In many ways, Modi’s foreign policy has made Pakistan irrelevant.

To conclude, his foreign minister S. Jaishankar displays the confident and assertive nationalism of the New India. While numerous examples can be cited, just one would do. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, there was tremendous pressure on India to stop buying oil from Russia. Instead, when Russia offered attractive discounts, there was a massive increase in oil imports of India from Russia. In European capitals and in New York and Washington, Jaishankar politely and firmly pointed out that India’s national interests came first. For good measure, he would point out the hypocrisy of European countries importing huge quantities of gas from Russia while pressuring India over Russian oil. At the end of the day, the G7 countries had to accept the foreign policy stand taken by India.
That is the New India.

Sutanu Guru

Sutanu Guru is a journalist with more than three decades in platforms like Times of India, Economic Times, Business Today & Business World. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the C Voter Foundation

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