If their recent records in office are any indication, the BJP and the Congress, despite their serious differences on many issues, agree on three important foreign policy goals.
1) India becoming a permanent power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC),
2) India gaining global legitimacy as a nuclear power even if it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
3) India emerging as a major global power, particularly in what is now called the Indo-Pacific region.
In fact, Indian diplomats, whether under Manmohan Singh or under Narendra Modi, have been striving very hard towards the realisation of these three goals.
However, it is great irony that all these three goals were eminently realisable in the past. In fact, all the three exalted statuses that India wants to have (rather, deserves to have) were offered to India on a platter by the then-powerful nations of the world soon after the country’s Independence; but then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused them on what appears in retrospect, dubious grounds.
The Nehruvian thoughts that overwhelmingly dominate our intelligentsia and political class never questioned Nehru’s foreign policy decisions; but now things are changing. It is not that Nehru’s decisions on those three issues were not known before. What happened in the past was that whenever and whoever tried to bring them into public parlance, the dominant Nehruvites ridiculed them and justified Nehru’s decisions. As a result, a majority of Indians do not know that but for Nehru, India would have been a permanent member of the UNSC, a legitimate nuclear power and a leading global power in the 1950s.
It is against this background that former foreign secretary MK Rasgotra’s assertion while releasing his new book “A Life in Diplomacy” at Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) early this week that former US president John F Kennedy offered India all the help to detonate a nuclear device much before China did it in 1964, assumes significance. According to Rasgotra, had Nehru accepted Kennedy’s offer, it “would have deterred China from launching its war of 1962 and even imparted a note of caution to (Pakistan’s) Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s plans for war in 1965”.
Rasgotra said, “Kennedy, who was an admirer of India’s democracy and held its leader Nehru in very high esteem, felt that democratic India, not Communist China, should be the first Asian country to conduct a nuclear test”. However, Nehru turned down Kennedy’s handwritten letter in which the offer was made. In fact, had India exploded the device in the early 1960s with American help, it would have easily become an original signatory to the NPT that legitimises nuclear weapons in the hands of those countries which went nuclear before 1968. And as a member of the NPT, we would have effortlessly entered the nuclear associations like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Similarly, take the case of the permanent membership in the UNSC. In 1950, none other than the US wanted to see India joining the Security Council in the place of the nationalist China. After the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, the then Chinese president Chiang kai Shek had fled to the island of Taiwan. The Communist China was not recognised as a UN member and Chiang’s government was deemed to be representing the whole of China (this status continued till 1971 when following the normalisation of relations between the US and Communist China, thanks to the then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Beijing entered the UN and Taipei was pushed out). Chiang kai Shek was also agreeable to this proposition.
In fact, Anton Harder, whose PhD thesis in London School of Economics was on “Sino-Indian relations from 1949-1962,” has revealed the then Indian ambassador to the US Vijaylaxmi Pandit’s letter to her brother Nehru. She wrote: “One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a permanent member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place. I have just seen Reuters' report of your answer to the same question. Last week I had interviews with (John Foster) Dulles and (Philip) Jessup, reports of which I have sent to (Girija Shankar) Bajpai (the then foreign secretary). Both brought up this question and Dulles seemed particularly anxious that a move in this direction should be started. Last night I heard from Marquis Childs, an influential columnist of Washington, that Dulles (US secretary of state) has asked him on behalf of the State Department to build up public opinion along these lines”.
Nehru’s response within the week was unequivocal: “In your letter you mention that the State Department is trying to unseat China as a permanent member of the Security Council and to put India in her place. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China. I suppose the State Department would not like that, but we have no intention of following that course. We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council. “
In other words, rather than India’s case, Nehru, in his zeal for “Asian unity”, went out of way to espouse the cause of China’s entry in to the United Nations. So much so that he rejected in 1955 a similar offer, this time from the Soviet Union. Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin had suggested to Nehru that Moscow would propose India as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council, and thus not at the cost of China. But as Sarvepalli Gopal in his biography of Nehru (1979) has mentioned, “He (Nehru) rejected the Soviet offer to propose India as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council and insisted that priority be given to China’s admission”.
In fact, Nehru has been quoted to have said: “Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in the US have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject to controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council, it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the UN. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”
Just imagine what Nehru did for China and how China has responded to Indian gestures — border war in 1962 and now diplomatic war to prevent India getting in the NSG!
That brings me now to the last point: India’s deserved position as a great power in the Indo-Pacific region.
It may be noted here that given India’s civilisational links in Southeast Asia and its moral and material contributions towards the decolonisation movements in the region including China and Korea, countries like the Philippines and Malaysia had openly suggested in the 1950s that New Delhi should play the leadership role in the region. Following the Baguio (in the Philippines) Conference in 1949, which was attended by India, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Ceylon, Carlos Romulo, the trusted lieutenant of the Pilipino President Quirino, who was in charge of organising the Conference, had said in New York that “I want India to realise that the proposed (Pacific) Union is only a continuation of the Asian Conference and nothing more. The Philippines was taking up where India had left off and the Asian Union, according to Romulo, was supposed to work under the Indian leadership, for ‘India was the strongest and most enlightened nation of Asia today’.”
Many Southeast Asian countries thought that Indian influence, in combination with Japan and Australia, would prove reassuring to small and vulnerable states, especially when the western powers, particularly Great Britain, had indicated their withdrawal from the region. They perceived India as an alternative to the entanglements with major powers, such as the traditional Cold War powers of Russia and the US or the resurgent powers of China and Japan. This is because, India, unlike other powers, had not sought a military base in the region; nor had it attempted ideological or physical invasions of the region. In addition, Southeast Asian countries did not have any outstanding territorial disputes with India as opposed to those over the Spratly Islands with China.
But all this did not impress Nehru.
And it so happened during the subsequent years when the Cold War was intensified, India lost the war with China and India inched towards the Soviet bloc, these very countries — Asean nations, Australia, Japan, and the US — started seeing India negatively. It was only after the end of the Cold War and advent of the PV Narasimha Rao government in the 1990s that things started changing and some basic features of Nehruvianism were challenged.
Better late than never!