When India won its independence barely two years after the end of World War II, the entire world was still recuperating from the most calamitous war in its history. Six years of fierce conflict involving a majority of nations of the world had killed approximately 60 to 80 million people.
The world was divided into two belligerent camps that were at odds with each other. Jawaharlal Nehru had inherited a nation of 370 million famished people. The country’s economy was in disarray. India’s share of the world’s wealth had fallen from about 30 per cent in the mid 18th century to less than 3 per cent when the British left the country in 1947.
Against this backdrop, Nehru took over the nation with the hope of forging amicable relationship with countries of the world.
The newly independent nations that emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s became an important factor in changing the balance of power within the United Nations. In 1946, there were 35 member states in the United Nations, and by 1970 when the newly independent nations of the “third world” joined the organization, its membership had escalated to 127.
These new member states had a few characteristics in common; they were non-white, with evolving economies, facing internal problems that were the result of their colonial past. This often put them at odds with European countries and made them suspicious of European-style government structures, political ideas and economic institutions.
These nations felt that they were excluded from the decisions made by the western nations and desired to have an organisation which reflected their concerns.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s effort to modernise the nation was not to westernise it, but to evolve India into a powerhouse by assimilating the best facets of western culture.
In his capacity as Prime Minister, he tried to integrate the noblest elements of the east and the west.
One of his first acts as the leader of independent India was to convene The Asian Relations Conference in Delhi (1947) where the principles of foreign policy of independent India were proclaimed. This conference was attended by representatives of 29 countries and helped in strengthening the solidarity of all the Asian countries.
The first large scale Afro–Asian Conference known as The Bandung Conference was a meeting of newly independent Asian and African countries, took place in April 1955 in Indonesia. The twenty-nine countries that participated in this conference represented nearly one-quarter of the Earth’s land surface and a total population of 1.5 billion people. The conference was organised by Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. Its aims were to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism by any nation. This conference was an important step toward Nehru’s dream of the Non-Aligned Movement.
A champion of human freedom, Nehru opposed colonialism in his foreign policy and it received high praise from many of the newly independent countries though it was viewed with skepticism by the US. American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles characterized the non-aligned ideal as immoral and opportunistic.
Under Nehru’s guidance, India became the first country to begin a policy that was new in the history of international relations – the policy of Non-Alignment, which was founded in 1961 in Belgrade and was ably supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, President Sukarno of Indonesia and Joseph Broz Tito of Yugoslavia.
Nehru’s policy of neutrality paved the way for the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India facilitated the involvement of former colonies and newly independent countries into the organization which aimed to protect the interests of undeveloped nations in international politics.
The policy of non-alignment meant the acceptance of the inevitability of war but on the conviction that it could be avoided. Non-alignment entailed a position to judge each issue without bias or prejudice. The secret of this policy was that India was never permanently pro-west or pro-east.
The policy of non-alignment was based on the five principles of Panchasheel, which directed international conduct. These principles which were envisaged and formulated in 1954, were mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; non interference in each other’s military and internal affairs; mutual non aggression; equality and mutual benefit and finally, peaceful coexistence and economic cooperation.
By 1955, a number of countries including Burma, China, Laos, Nepal, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Cambodia had accepted the principles of Panchasheel.
The technique of maintaining world peace through non-alignment was to make sure that each nation pursued its own interest without disturbing other nations.
India’s economic backwardness was a major factor for the adoption of the policy of non-alignment. Foreign aid was an important component for the development of India’s embryonic economy and therefore aid was welcome from all parts of the world – UK, Germany, USA, Japan and USSR. India was tied up with both the east as well as the west for economic development.
However, Nehru’s principle of Panchasheel did hit a setback when India was attacked by the Chinese in 1962 and Nehru was severely criticised for the country’s failure to defend itself. Chinese aggression against India now recognised that non-alignment had to be tied up with immediate defence requirements in order to survive.
Nehru wanted to make the world an abode of peace. He believed that in the atomic age, peace had become the only guarantor of human survival.
While assessing the effectiveness of Nehru’s foreign policies, it is imperative to observe the dynamic nature of India’s relations with the two superpowers of the time. During the first fifteen years of independence, India both endorsed and opposed the US and the Soviet Union at different times.
During the Korean War (1950), India backed the US by endorsing the United Nations resolution that condemned North Korea’s attack on South Korea.
Poor harvest during the early years of independence compelled Nehru to reach out to the US for food aid. From 1947 to 1959, the US provided food supplies worth 930 million USD to India.
US turned to Asia during the Cold War in search of allies for the Western bloc. After India refused to side with it owing to its policy of Non-Alignment, US found an ally in Pakistan.
US’s close ties with Pakistan forced Nehru to improve India’s ties with the Soviet Union in order to maintain a check on its arch enemy.
Nehru’s visit to the US in 1949 stirred suspicion among Soviet leaders about India’s allegiance during the Cold War. The comments made in the American press that India was a feasible political alternative to China caused further trepidation in the Soviet circles.
In 1950 India opposed the US designed ‘Uniting for Peace Resolution’, on the ground that it would prevent the Soviet Union from taking direct action in the Security Council.
India’s refusal to join US sponsored pacts and its position as a leader of the emerging Non-Aligned countries gave a new direction to India-Soviet relations.
It was because of this act that Nehru received an unprecedented welcome on his visit to the Soviet Union in 1955. His visit was followed by the Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin’s and General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to India the same year. The Soviet leaders endorsed and backed India’s position against Pakistan on Kashmir and against Portugal on Goa.
As the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru managed to transcend regional boundaries and emerged as a global statesman. He supervised India’s foreign policy with other countries and created a political incubator for the new country to develop.