A short but comprehensive study, recently released by the Centre for Policy Research, identifies “the opportunities India enjoys in the international sphere; the challenges and threats it is likely to confront; and the broad perspective and approach that India should adopt…to enhance its strategic autonomy”. Eight practical thinkers exceptionally experienced in varied relevant fields – business, economic, military, diplomatic, journalistic and academic – perform a badly-needed public service by drawing attention to a vital, neglected need. They do their proposals a disservice by inexplicably projecting them as new version of non-alignment.
This is not a quarrel with wording: define what you mean clearly, you can call it anything, but some words have inescapable connotations. The report is perfectly clear, but what it urges is blessedly far-removed from all that we did – or avoided doing – when obsessed with with non-alignment. Reviving that concept is all too likely to drive our people back to something that is not only long outdated but – and this is its dangerous legacy – which we still fail to recognise as having done us more harm than good.
The report recognises the drawback of that earlier non-aligned episode, warning us to be “no longer be limited” to its essence of “avoiding becoming a frontline state in a conflict between two powers”. But it recasts non-alignment as a comprehensive policy framework, endowing it with three “core objectives...to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its own development goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a more just and equitable global order.”
We need to cut away all the obscuring – and obscurantist – foliage that grew around the original non-alignment. A means to an end peculiar to its times got inflated into a grand philosophy for saving the world. Its prime conceiver, Jawaharlal Nehru, had no illusions about it. He did not, alas, live long enough to keep it from becoming an organised movement — the non-aligned movement (NAM). At the first, and only, summit he attended (Belgrade, 1961), he strenuously opposed that notion and its Third Force implications. His whole approach grew from one fundamental belief that we all needed to grasp but still haven’t: we must think for ourselves. Independence for him could never be complete till it encompassed our minds: not just avoiding entanglement in the conflict between two great rival camps contending to shape the world, but ensuring that they – or any other outside pressure – did not shape our thinking.
That was the enduring part; otherwise, non-alignment was not a policy but an instrument of policy for handling a particular set of circumstances — two alliances seeking more satellites, with attendant risks that heightened polarisation would heighten dangers of world war.
After Nehru, we let the concept be distorted into a movement that more purposeful, cynical members used for their own special interests — the Arabs to get us all stridently committed not only to the Palestine cause but to isolating Israel, Cuba to generate hostility to the US, the marvellous Marshall Tito to help him cock a snook at the erstwhile USSR. We did press some worthy causes that the West ignored or opposed and the USSR ignored or exploited — eradicating racial discrimination, genuine non-proliferation and North-South issues. But in what way did NAM do anything for India’s real national concerns?
Not that we could expect direct support on any strictly bilateral matters — we ourselves insisted they must be excluded. (The irony was that it was the two polarising powers that helped us on our two major crises — the USSR on Kashmir, and the US [and the USSR] on China). Did our participation in – or rather our eager commitment to – the movement help India better serve its purely national interests even indirectly, like the countries mentioned?
Krishna Menon, whose occasional striking phrase-making almost earns forgiveness for his baleful aspects, pointed out that “you must be non-aligned with the non-aligned to be truly non-aligned!” (Another observation, not without present echoes: when an MP criticised our foreign policy in the sixties as drifting, Menon exclaimed, “No, even a drift has direction!”) Examine the record of those years, you will find India verbally out-Heroding Herod in support of others.
The report’s good advice risks being lost in past illusions if it’s three “core objectives” are seen in a non-aligned context. We did let “ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere” shape our policies, only instead of Washington or Moscow (arguably), Cairo, Havana or Belgrade used us. Instead of “building national power” for our own interest we were distracted by hopes of “creating a more just and equitable world order”. Also, to avoid such weaknesses, we must be cautious about the concept of “strategic autonomy”.
The only power able to influence the course of events where it chooses exemplifies the limits of power and of autonomy: it cannot do whatever it wants. The other power that aspires to the same position faces even greater limitations. On the two conceivable challenges to our own territorial integrity, nobody would help us: we would stand alone and must, therefore, develop capabilities enabling us to rely on our own. But beyond that we will need “complicated coalitions”.
The report rightly urges India to develop “maximum options in its relations with the outside world” but even the most powerful country finds such autonomy limited not only by its domestic economic and military capabilities (and politics), and by its geographical situation, but also by the world’s power equations. Again, the report is wise in its recommendations — that all this “will require very skilful management of complicated coalitions and opportunities”; “a more nuanced understanding of a whole range of concepts and principles”; and the absolute avoidance of “stances rooted in abstract idealism.” The harm of non-alignment 1.0 was that a slogan became a substitute for thinking. Let us avoid the very thought of non-alignment 2.0, passing on to the report’s other, thought provoking substance.
Not that the condition of the politico-administrative complex in charge of our affairs will allow it to take any notice — nor the media that should stimulate public debate. But the biggest obstacle to any real effort to address our challenges is that we as people have discarded our once greatest, and essential, asset: the use of the mind. This report demands full use of it.
The author is former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and USA & Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs