With India obtaining independence as the Cold War emerged on the global stage, Indian foreign policy formulation was constrained by the international backdrop of two clashing ideological worldviews. The Cold War thus becomes a crucial time period in understanding Indian statecraft. Accordingly, this paper focuses on the premierships of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, a remarkably contrasting father-daughter duo who served thirty-two years between them during the conflict. I argue that India’s Cold War foreign policy was dynamic and constantly adapting to different situations, rather than a static nonalignment which many accounts reduce it to. This view is arrived at by adopting a rational rather than ideational view of nonalignment. Indeed, ideas that first emerged during the Cold War have continued to influence Indian foreign policy, as the country is poised to play a pivotal role in the current so-called ‘Asian century.’
The onset of the Cold War coincided with Indian independence, meaning that the crafting of Indian policy was constrained by the international backdrop of two clashing ideological worldviews. As foreign affairs analyst Zorawar Daulet Singh (2019, p. 2) states, the Cold War offers a “rich and relatively untapped historical reserve” in understanding Indian statecraft. In examining the Cold War’s impact on Indian foreign policies, this essay focuses on the prime ministerships of Jawaharlal Nehru (1947–64) and Indira Gandhi (1966–77; 1980–84), both domestically dominant leaders and key foreign policy architects. The major redefining of the former’s policy under the latter adds to the relevance of this father-daughter duo.
Structurally, following a brief discussion of the Cold War in South Asia to provide context, foreign policy under each leader is examined through specific case studies. While highlighting nonalignment’s continued, if diminishing, influence over the years, it is argued that India’s foreign policy during the Cold War was dynamic and constantly adapting to different situations, rather than a static nonalignment which many accounts reduce it to.
The Cold War in South Asia
The defining feature of the Cold War geopolitical order was a Free World-Communist World binary between the US and USSR-led blocs. While conventional narratives generally view the Global South’s role in the conflict as subordinate, Saull (2005) centers his analysis on the South by characterizing the Cold War as a global socioeconomic conflict between capitalism and communism. Similarly, Odd Arne Westad views the so-called ‘third world’ as central rather than peripheral to the conflict (Westad in Bhagavan, 2019, p. 1).
Pakistan’s 1954 induction into the US-led alliance system—declaring itself “America’s most allied ally in Asia” (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 20)—is commonly considered the entry of the Cold War into South Asia, which would eventually alter the region’s strategic landscape. With the subsequent Soviet countereffort, South Asia was transformed from an “international backwater” to an “important locus of superpower rivalry” and by the early 1960s, the region was considered a major theatre in the global conflict (McGarr, 2015, pp. 4–5).
The Nehruvian Era
Rejecting reductionist Cold War binaries and prioritizing India’s strategic independence, nonalignment was the centerpiece of Nehru’s foreign policy. Nonalignment was not equivalent to ‘no alignment’ or simply staying equidistant from both power blocs, rather it involved taking an active interest in international affairs and was clearly differentiated from passive Swiss-style neutralism (Singh, 2019, p. 13). Nehru himself summed it up best in stating that nonalignment involved “combine[ing] idealism with national interest” (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 16), further declaring that “idealism [was] the realism of tomorrow” (Singh, 2019, p. 7). Realist scholar Stephen Krasner termed this modified structuralism—the pursuit of both national and universal interests (Solomon, 2012).
Nonalignment is regularly viewed in postcolonial and normative terms (Guha, 2019 , p. 175), connoting to a sense of Indian ‘civilizational exceptionalism.’ While one can certainly view the American and Soviet spheres of influence as neocolonial structures, a more convincing reading of nonalignment would be as a rational, realist reaction to a charged global order, especially given India’s limited economic and military capacity. India’s colonial history meant it shared considerable institutional and economic links with Britain, and during the early years of independence Washington largely left subcontinental affairs to London. Concurrently, when Moscow initiated an Afro-Asian Cold War front post Stalin’s death in 1953, Nehru welcomed constructive engagement in the view that friendly relations with both blocs would prove strategically advantageous (McGarr, 2015, pp. 30–32).
Indeed, following a successful exchange of visits between Nehru and Soviet leader Khrushchev in 1955, Indian diplomat KPS Menon advocated for increased economic ties with the USSR, to encourage “a little competition” with the West and alter the perception of Indian dependence on Anglo-American economic schemes (Ibid, p. 34). This is a perfect reflection of the Indian policy mindset at the time—Nehru’s “soft idealism” (Hymans in Chacko, 2014, p. 2) was as much about realpolitik as moralpolitik, enabling India to gain leverage with the superpowers.
Nonalignment also allowed India to normalize ties with China (McGarr, 2015, p. 37)—otherwise a natural regional and ideological competitor—in 1954, parallel to the formalizing of the US-Pakistan alliance and in the hopes of neutralizing any Chinese military threat. The policy’s peak moment of glory came the following year at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which brought together twenty-nine Afro-Asian countries (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 23) and sowed the seed for the formal establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
The Asian Zone of Peace
With nonalignment’s key subthemes of anti-colonialism and anti-racism, India could internationally punch far above its diplomatic weight by becoming a ‘voice for the voiceless’ (Ibid, pp. 15–16). India became a natural negotiator on controversial issues including peacekeeping and nuclear disarmament, assuming what Singh (2018, p. 2) terms an “extra-regional peacemaker role.” Nehru’s ambition for an Asian “zone of peace” (Ibid, p. 16) was essentially an extension of nonalignment aimed at limiting the Cold War’s spread within the continent—once again, not only for idealist reasons but also to protect Indian security. To this end, Nehru linked nonalignment with the Buddhist Panchsheela (Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) concept, a distinct attempt to give it a wider Asian flavor (Miškovic et al., 2014, p. 5).
Implications of this policy vision were seen during the Korean War—the Cold War’s first ‘hot war’—when Nehru voiced concern about American action against China possibly rekindling the Chinese civil war, thereby destabilizing India’s immediate and larger neighborhood (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, pp. 19–20). India was also involved with the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina as part of its efforts to shape a “new equilibrium” for Asia (Singh, 2019, p. 25). Additionally, Roy (2015) presents a detailed study of how Indian diplomacy led Burma and Ceylon to decline joining the US-led Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an anti-communist alliance eventually considered a failure.
India—which he viewed as a potential counterbalance to communist China—was central to Kennedy’s Asia policy, marking a significant shift from previous American administrations. India reciprocated warmly to initial outreach. Following a successful May 1961 visit to New Delhi, Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote that “Nehru…was clearly ‘neutral’ in favor of the West” (McMahon, 1994, p. 277).
Yet despite this favorable start, no major change in Indian policy followed. In November 1961 talks for instance, Nehru and Kennedy clashed over American intervention in the Kashmir dispute (Ibid, pp. 280–81). India’s opposition to external intervention in Kashmir was an early Cold War legacy, with Nehru severely disillusioned by past UN efforts influenced by Western powers’ bias towards Pakistan (Behera, 2007 , p. 34) India even purchased Soviet MiG-21 fighter jets as a hedge against its increasing American economic aid (McMahon, 1994, pp. 285–86), a clear sign that nonalignment was still fundamentally guiding policy.
Then came a significant turning point, the 1962 Sino-Indian War, which evaporated Nehru’s hopes for a peaceful Asia. With Indian defenses decisively overwhelmed by the Chinese offensive, Nehru immediately accepted Kennedy’s offer of military aid, one Washington hoped would cement ties. Nehru in fact even requested direct US military intervention via air support (Ibid, p. 292). The importance of this development cannot be discounted, for militarily allying with a great power was arguably a direct contradiction of nonalignment—the time had come for Nehru to prioritize national interest over idealism. A unilaterally declared Chinese ceasefire, however, robbed Kennedy of the chance to respond to this request.
Shaken by military defeat, India acquiesced to subsequent US-facilitated negotiations with Pakistan over Kashmir (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 29), in a major deviation from longstanding policy. Kennedy had unsurprisingly linked the Sino-Indian War to the wider Free World-Communist World conflict, and it was imperative that the India-Pakistan regional rivalry not overshadow the larger Communist threat. Although the talks eventually collapsed, India’s submission to this American Cold War design cannot be overlooked.
Another key takeaway from the war was the fact that the NAM remained largely neutral, highlighting nonalignment’s limits in a bipolar world and the NAM’s inability to provide a security commitment. The NAM seemed to be somewhat of a ‘toothless tiger,’ and consequently India focused less on peacekeeping and prioritized its own security interests, now more narrowly defined. Nehru reinterpreted nonalignment to allow for the acceptance of military aid from both blocs—a diversification of dependence—stopping just short of entering a formal alliance (Ibid, pp. 27–28).
The Indira Years
The Pro-Soviet Tilt
The redefining of nonalignment was taken one step further by Indira, who seemed to more readily recognize its limits. Following the brief uptick under Kennedy, relations with the US considerably deteriorated under President Johnson, who was preoccupied with Vietnam (McGarr, 2015, pp. 3–4). The subsequent Sino-American rapprochement under Nixon meant New Delhi and Washington no longer had the shared interest of the Chinese threat (Madan, 2019). Moscow’s approach, on the other hand, was influenced by pragmatism rather than ideology. India was seeking to boost its military power post the 1962 defeat, and while the West was hesitant to upset the India-Pakistan balance, the Soviets had no qualms in supplying arms (Joshi, 2019). Pakistan had also stepped up security cooperation with China following the American disengagement, igniting Indian fears of a possible two-front war (Ganguly and Pardesi, 2009).
Given these circumstances, it made sense for India to lean towards the USSR. India could anyhow not realistically attain strategic autonomy with its dependence on foreign powers for military equipment. Gaining Moscow’s military and political backing was a pragmatic means of securing India’s security interests while also not completely discarding nonalignment as India had not entered into a formal alliance with the USSR. As such, Indira’s foreign policy was driven primarily by a quest for power, aligning with the Cold War norm, and possessed little of Nehru’s statesmanship.
Further highlighting the resilience of nonalignment, albeit diminished, Indira emphatically dismissed arguments that the USSR was a “natural ally” of the NAM (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 34). Soviet concerns over China following the Sino-Soviet split gave India significant leverage in terms of extracting assistance, and New Delhi sought to maintain working relationships with Washington and Beijing (Madan, 2019). Indira’s signing of a Peace, Friendship and Cooperation Treaty with the USSR before the 1971 India-Pakistan War is widely seen as a breach of nonalignment (Solomon, 2012), but given Nixon’s level of commitment to Pakistan (Joshi, 2019), India was arguably maintaining the subcontinental balance of power. New Delhi’s tilt towards Moscow understandably solidified following its comprehensive victory in Bangladesh.
The Indian Ocean Zone of Peace
In contrast to Nehru’s wider continental operational frame, Indira turned inward and focused on cementing Indian dominance in the subcontinent—Singh (2019, p. 2) calls her a “largely subcontinental security seeker.” While Nehru was partly motivated by a desire to restrict the Cold War’s spread, Indira had a narrower balance of power goals, but the Cold War significantly influenced the manner in which she sought to maintain regional hegemony.
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) was of considerable strategic importance to India, and the US-USSR rivalry was fundamental to the IOR’s future geopolitics. India’s lack of naval power and opposition to formally entering great power alliances meant it actively backed the notion of an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZP), first proposed by Sri Lanka in 1964 (Joshi, 2019). As Joshi (2019) explains, to this end India pursued a policy of selective alignment with the great powers, balancing one against another to ensure its regional aims were unhindered. For instance, India welcomed the simultaneous increase in American and Soviet involvement in the IOR following the British navy’s withdrawal in 1968.
India thus seemed keenly aware that the great powers would require a regional power like itself to command influence outside their Cold War spheres of influence. Aided by her divisible conception of security (Singh, 2019, p. 34), Indira leveraged Cold War power politics to India’s geopolitical advantage—reminiscent of the realpolitik aspects of Nehruvian nonalignment.
The Soviet-Afghan War
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over concerns about growing American pushback against Kabul’s Communist government (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 40) presented a serious policy dilemma for India. Backing Moscow in this Cold War conflict would further violate nonalignment. Yet besides consistent support on Kashmir, the USSR was also a key defense and economic partner. In this backdrop, Indira responded with a muddled three-step plan aimed at balancing out these opposing interests. India attempted to rationalize Moscow’s deployment of troops at the UN while simultaneously ill-advisedly calling out Washington, Islamabad, and Beijing. Indira then publicly criticized the invasion and subsequently initiated diplomatic measures with Pakistan and the West in a bid to demonstrate that India was not completely in support of Moscow. (Paliwal, 2017, pp. 49–51).
The Soviets had earlier invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, but the difference this time was that the conflict was unfolding in India’s immediate neighborhood, thus threatening the IOZP. Of the three prongs of Gandhi’s strategy, the third was arguably the most significant. The threat to regional stability and balance of power meant India placed its rivalry with Pakistan on the backburner. New Delhi initiated cross-border dialogue with Islamabad and rejected Soviet suggestions of mounting a full-scale military invasion to capture Kashmir’s entirety while Pakistan dealt with Afghanistan (Ibid, pp. 51–52). The extent of India’s discomfort with great power intervention in the subcontinent is perhaps best reflected in talks with Pakistan on formulating the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) (Ganguly and Pardesi, 2009).
At the same time, remnants of long-compromised nonalignment were visible. Diplomatic efforts were initiated to avoid antagonizing Washington, and although the proposal ultimately failed, India even attempted to mobilize international support for a political solution to the conflict (Schaffer and Schaffer, 2016, p. 40). While it is easy to characterize India’s support to Moscow—however reluctant—as opportunistic and immoral, the fact is that a botched Soviet withdrawal resembling America’s departure from Vietnam would render the US and Pakistan triumphant. And Washington’s substantial military aid to Pakistan following the invasion had serious security implications for India (Ganguly and Pardesi, 2009). Thus, there was a realist element at play as well.
Yet overall, Indira seemed to be seeking a face-saving way to avoid directly opposing Moscow, largely alienating India within the NAM. The ‘political solution’ New Delhi supported was vague, arguably offering Moscow some freedom (Paliwal, 2017, p. 57). The Soviet-Afghan War starkly exposed just how far India’s reliance on Moscow had constrained its foreign policy, and no amount of policy balancing could resolve the contradictions created by Indira’s pro-Soviet tilt.
It has been argued that adopting a rational rather than ideational view of nonalignment highlights its flexibility and evolving nature under Nehru and Indira. Much historical analysis offers a simplistic binary of an idealistic Nehru and uncompromising Indira, but there were elements of realism and idealism under both premiers, with the former emphasizing idealist approaches and the latter realist ones. India’s shifting strategic interests influenced by the course of the Cold War resulted in a dynamic if imperfect and occasionally contradictory foreign policy.
Ultimately, India seemed to reconcile with the world as it was rather than the world it hoped for. Ideas that first emerged during the Cold War, including diversifying external dependence and balancing opposing interests, continue to influence Indian foreign policy today. It is thus crucial to broaden our understanding of India’s Cold War past to effectively evaluate its present role as a key player of the “Asian century” (Sanwal, 2019).
Tridib Bhattacharya is a final year undergraduate and merit scholar at SOAS University of London studying International Relations and Economics. He has past research experience at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and the Carter Center, Atlanta. Tridib's analyses and opinion pieces have been published by E-International Relations, The Hindu, Qrius (formerly The Indian Economist), and The Wire India.
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