The overhang of ‘Nehruvian Realism’ which hangs over Bharat’s foreign and domestic policies needs to be dismantled, and Narendra Modi is well positioned to do that.
Despite the opposition of almost all others in the higher ranks of the Congress Party, Mahatma Gandhi ensured the steady ascent of Jawaharlal Nehru, first as AICC President and later as the first Prime Minister of Bharat because of his individualistic style of functioning. Economic and foreign policy in Bharat became what Nehru thought it should be, policy options that were often unrelated to realities, and which were often self-contradictory. China presents a textbook example of what may be described as policy based on “Nehruvian reality” i.e. reality defined as the subjective and personal view of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Once the first Prime Minister of Bharat decided to support without reserve Beijing’s move into Tibet, the option of military assistance to the Tibetan resistance by the US, the UK and other powers got eliminated, despite the fact that the 1950 Chinese intervention in the Korean war had made several US generals look at challenging China in Tibet as a counter. Certainly the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) would have been hard pressed to succeed against international forces which included the US and Bharat, especially in view of the fact that the Dalai Lama’s entourage was opposed to the takeover of Tibet by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). However, such plans depended on Bharat joining the alliance against Beijing, and this Jawaharlal Nehru opposed in his policy of total support to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The then Prime Minister of Bharat ignored the fact that: it had not been Mao Zedong but his foe Chiang Kai-shek who had backed Bharateeya Independence throughout the 1939-45 war years, Tibet was the source of much of the river water so essential to life and agriculture in the northern parts of Bharat, the CCP saw Bharat led by Nehru as a rival if not an enemy, and had made this explicit in its policy pronouncements and, siding with China would place Bharat on the opposite side of the US, which consequently would gravitate towards Pakistan, which had cosied up to Washington in contrast to Beijing-leaning Bharat. Even the USSR would have been happy, were Delhi to adopt a policy of distance from Mao Zedong, as the Chinese leader was unpopular in Moscow because of his refusal to accept Moscow as the final arbiter of policy the way other ruling communist parties had. However, Nehruvian reality saw an alignment with Beijing as being more valuable than these considerations, and hence Nehru went full throttle with Mao.
By 1957, the CCP through the PLA was in full control of Tibet, and the option of a military reversal of this situation dwindled to near insignificance. At the same time, it was obvious that tension was high between Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama of Tibet and Mao Zedong. This was the time when border negotiations were proceeding between China and Bharat, with Premier Zhou Enlai bringing proposals to Nehru that overall formalised the status quo. Given the situation at the time, this was an offer which it would have been advantageous to accept, and the Chinese side was therefore taken by surprise at Nehru’s refusal to agree to any settlement other than a Chinese withdrawal from Aksai Chin, the only territory which linked Tibet with Xinjiang at the time. However, ‘Nehruvian reality’ held that it was possible to persuade China to agree to withdraw from Aksai Chin, if only Prime Minister of Bharat held firm on this demand. And later, that giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and – in effect – allowing him to set up a Government in Exile on Bharateeya territory would not prove a provocation too substantial for Mao to ignore. Or later, in 1962, that an army that had taken on the US in Korea would flinch from attacking an Bharateeya army made operationally weak by official parsimony and
The 1957-59 refusal to agree to the status quo as the basis for a border settlement ignited suspicion in Beijing that Nehru was covertly in league with Washington to plot a future attack on China designed to prise away Xinjiang and Tibet from Beijing’s control. Such a view on Bharateeya intentions was reinforced with the stationing of the Dalai Lama in Bharat and the welcome given to him by Nehru. What happened afterwards in Sino-Bharat relations is well known and hence need not be repeated. Suffice it to say that the latent hostilty between Beijing and Delhi persisted, creating a deadlock in the border negotiations and ensuring that China made Pakistan a nuclear and missile power that had only Bharat as its enemy, the same way as Beijing ensured that North Korea would be a nuclear and missile power that focussed on Japan and South Korea as its immediate enemies. Successive governments in Delhi have refused to deviate from the Nehruvian mould of acting as though the wish were the fact, thereby ensuring that policies grounded in actual conditions continue to be the exception, including with China, a country whose leaders practice Real Politik with a capital ‘R’.
As has been the practice since Nehru, agencies in Bharat have a propensity to look at matters through a prism provided from outside, thereby ensuring that the policy formulated and implemented works to the benefit of external players rather than Bharat. An example is the ‘security’ block on investment and tourist arrivals from the PRC, a policy that meets with approval from countries that themselves lay out the red carpet for Chinese money andvisitors.
Although individuals such as Chandra Shekhar and P V Narasimha Rao were not Nehruvian in their approach to issues, the constraints placed by a Nehru-ised bureaucracy as well as the need to retain the support of the Nehru family (in the shape of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi espectively) weakened their efforts at changing the overall national policy matrix into a post-Nehruvian form. Only with the swearing-in of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014 we can say that a post-Nehruvian era has the potential to begin in Bharat.
On China, the new Prime Minister speedily placed his stamp, rejecting the earlier policy of blocking opportunities from that country because of worries over the threat posed by China. Instead, Modi has backed a policy of taking advantage of the opportunity while dealing with the threat, so that economic development is increased. Of course, much remains to be done to ensure the smooth rollout of this changed policy, as even such innovations as including China in the ‘visa on arrival’ scheme are facing silent slowdowns and outright sabotage by Nehru-ised elements in the bureaucracy. However, it is expected that such roadblocks will get cleared by Prime Minister Modi, as will those standing in the way of Chinese investment in Bharat.
At the same time, Modi has not hesitated to make common cause with countries such as Vietnam, Japan and others who reject China’s bid to claim ownership of the South China Sea on the basis of historical claims.
China represents a combination of threat and opportunity so far as Bharat is concerned, and the more the opportunity gets actualised, the lower will the threat level move to. Till Prime Minister Modi began his diplomacy towards China, the immense synergies between the two countries have remained largely unutilised. This is changing, and China is on course to become a major international investor in Bharat, besides a source of inbound tourism which could rival that of the NRI annual traffic. The overhang of ‘Nehruvian Realism’ which hangs over Bharat’s foreign and domestic policies needs to be dismantled, and Narendra Modi is well positioned to do that. Indeed, a post-Nehruvian policy towards China could lead to a settlement of the border issue during the period in office of President Xi and Prime Minister Modi, thereby entitltling them to win the title of global peacemakers. It could lead to trade between the two countries crossing the $ 500 billion mark, as also mutual investment. But for this, those elements in China who are hostile towards Bharat will need to be faced by an equally hard-nosed policy from Delhi.
M D Nalapat (The wrtier is Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University)