Why India's 'non-aligned' foreign policy is a joke

An earlier version of this column carried the following line: "The mischief at Pokhran resulted in India having its only negative FDI inflow year between 1992 and 2002." This has been corrected to make it "FII inflow"

Many years ago, Pakistan analyst Khaled Ahmed identified some nations as not having a foreign policy.

Export-oriented economies, according to his thesis, chose not to have a clearly defined foreign policy. On issues of controversy, they lay low rather than commit to a side. Ahmed named Singapore and South Korea as his examples. For them, business and their economy trumped any satisfaction taken from moral positions. A sort of Baniya way of looking at the world.


Ahmed's thesis was put to the test a couple of days ago when the United Nations voted on Palestinian statehood. The vote wasn't really important because it gave the Palestinians only nominal statehood.

Most nations of the world, 138 in all, voted in favour, including India and Pakistan. Nine including Israel, the United States, and countries afraid of it like the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Panama and Nauru voted against.

I was interested to know if Ahmed's thesis held and looked at the full list, which was published by Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper.

Sure enough, Singapore and South Korea were on the list of abstainees. They could have voted in favour, as did most European nations, without offending the US but they chose not to.

India has always thought of itself as something of a moral nation in the rough and tumble of international politics. But its behaviour has not been consistent. It was most moral in the 1950s, when Nehru joined up with people like Nasser and Tito against colonising nations, which were clearly in the wrong.

India was then, or at least thought of itself as being, non-aligned. Essentially this meant thumbing one's nose at the United States every so often. India deluded itself into thinking its size and history made it important. This dream was disturbed by reality when China clobbered India in 1962 and Nehru went to Kennedy for help. He asked specifically for 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters and a radar system. So embarrassed was India with this that it was kept a secret on both sides till a couple of years ago, when Kennedy's secret papers were published.

America did not give us military aid, but for many decades to follow India was the top recipient of American charity.

In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi continued the charade of being non-aligned while aligning with the Soviet Union. This was done in opportunistic fashion and India did not oppose the invasion of Afghanistan. One reason was that India needed a Security Council veto for Kashmir to defend itself against China, which came actively in support of Pakistan after Kissinger's visit to China, which was facilitated by Yahya Khan.

A sort of pragmatism came to India under Narasimha Rao, who recognised Israel. But his term was also a period of great changes in the world. The Soviet Union went, South Africa emerged from Apartheid, and Clinton, the finest leader of our time, got the Israelis to settle with the Palestinians (a breakthrough his successors sadly failed to build upon).

India's pramatic approach continued for the most part, with the exception of an act of gross stupidity under Vajpayee. The mischief at Pokhran resulted in India having its only negative FII inflow year between 1992 and 2002. More damagingly, it also ensured Pakistan weaponised its nuclear program, destabilising South Asia permanently.

Under Manmohan Singh, it has become normal again, as is to be expected under a scholar-statesman.

We still don't have the cold, interest-minded approach of Singapore and South Korea, but then that is not the Indian way.

Updated Date: Dec 04, 2012 09:06 AM

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