Why Nehruvianism is a blast from the past

Harriet Olaisen, India områdestudier, IKOS, UiO

Nehru with nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha (source: india.blogs.nytimes.com)

India’s effort to pursue an independent foreign policy of her own was the highlight of post-1947 politics. Independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had visioned that the independent state of India should front a foreign policy arena based on an idea of non-alignment. This idea of non-alignment was to be fronted by poor, newly independent states from the former colonialized Asia and Africa in their struggle to build their nations in a world divided by the two cold war blocks. Nehru’s understanding was that independent, poor countries of Asia and Africa had nothing to gain, but everything to lose by falling for the temptation of joining the military blocks of the big powers.[i] According to Kanti Bajpai’s “Indian Strategic Culture” this is how Nehruvianism came to be formed as a school of thoughts for Indian foreign policy. This way Bajpai makes an attempt to find a political culture in India’s foreign policy, where others would say that India lack one. By putting Nehruvianism up against other schools as Neoliberalism and Hyperrealism he describes the low level of relevance Nehruvianism play today in the Indian foreign policy culture.[ii]  This claim he makes about the relevance of Nehruvianism in today's Indian foreign policy shows to be very low. This is also one of the cases written about in the new, 2012 publication on India’s foreign policy, “Grand Strategy for India, 2020 and Beyond”.[iii] This new publication makes it interesting to bring up the issue about the value of Nehruvianism again, as Bajpai did. 

Bajpai especially claims that Nehru’s legacy does not fit most aspects of a new global world order. I will mention here the aspects of nuclear weapons, the United Nations, China and The United States.

Bajpai sketches out a core set of values in Nehruvianism, from the point of non-alignment to the importance of communication. Communication and contact between state and people, and communication and contact between states. Nehru stressed communication as the most important tool to form strong and healthy connections in the international foreign policy game.[iv]

The Nehruvian emphasis on communication is hard to object against, but there are other factors in this school of thoughts that is outdated and therefor interesting to take a closer look at.

Bajpai describes the Nehruvianism stand on war and violence as:

“States must look after themselves in such a world, in which violence is a regrettable last resort.”[v]

By this he describes Nehruvianism as not against the use of violence and war making, but he also goes on saying that:

“(……) to make preparations for war and a balance of power the central objectives of security and foreign policy is, for Nehruvians, both ruinous and futile (….).” [vi]

This is an interesting statement seen from the 1998 nuclear era in Indian defense policy. Nehruvians had to take a stance on issues that was not thought about before as a foreign political matter. Nehruvians explained this issue by saying that nuclear weapons was and are necessary for India’s security as long as they cannot be abolished. They take a stance on the impotency of disarmament, but at the same time, as Bajpai writes:

“Nuclear weapons are also necessary in a diplomatic sense. In a world of great and growing inequalities, nuclear weapons are not just a military but also a political equalizer.” [vii]

I would say that this is a major shift in the meanings of political foreign diplomacy. From contact and communication as the most important tool in foreign diplomacy, to calling nuclear weapons a political equalizer is a long way to go. This makes the Nehruvian political standpoint harder to grasp after nuclear weapons came to play a role in foreign politics. And maybe by this specific issue makes it clear that the Nehruvian way of thought is not capable on handling modern and new ways of engaging in global world politics.

On the notion of communication and contact as the way to handle political issues, rather than force, Nehruvians see international organizations and interstate negotiations as ways for institutionalizing communication and contact.[viii]They stress the importance of UN as a forum for where the different sovereign nations can meet on equal terms to discuss important global and domestic issues. But times have changed also for the UN, and therefor set a question on the role the UN should have in a new global world. The United Nations was based on the sovereignty of nations and was not designed to defend values like pluralism, secularism and democracy.[ix]

One the issue of China, Nehruvians sees China as a backward country trying to improve the lives of its huge population, much like India. China and India have historically never been enemies, in the Nehruvian view, and the war of 1962 was an aberration and was due to a series of misunderstandings. And therefor had to pursue a steady, patient course of diplomacy with China.[x] But when the nuclear test was done by India in May 1998, New Delhi had to justify the tests for the global nuclear world, and their justification was in the terms of the Chinese threat. This caused a setback in the diplomatic relationship between India and China, and one could say, not a good example in the art of communication from India’s behalf between theme and China. To justify their own action by blaming it on a Chinese threat this could have been solved by actually communicating their fear towards China. This sets an example that Nehruvians did not practice their own necessity of communication as much as they stressed it should be used in political issues.

The relationship with the United States, as a great power, the Nehruvian prescription to deal with such a great power was nonalignment. The only way to deal with the United States was to resist American policies and power by building a coalition of Third World states and others who worried about Washington’s dominance.[xi] But this has changed quite a lot after the cold war ended, and also after the 1991 opening of the economy in India. The Nehruvian pronouncements about the need for nonalignment and a Third World coalition against the United States are gone from the official vocabulary and India is interested in a closer and more pragmatic relationship with the United States, and now also sees theme as “a natural ally”.[xii]

These four aspects on the Nehruvian way of dealing with serious foreign issues on nuclear weapons, the UN, China and the United States are changing. It may have been a way to form India’s foreign policy after independency, but does not fully work on today’s international issues. Also on the relationships that India has with, in this case, China and the United States.  Therefor to set a question mark behind Nehruvianism as a blast from the past, is interesting in a way to se that communication and contact is indeed important in diplomacy, but this together with nonalignment is not the way to go anymore in todays foreign policy making for India.


[i] Chandra, Bipan. Mukherjee, Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee, pp.189.

[ii] Bajpai, Kanti.

[iii] Subrahmanyam, K, ”Grand Strategy for the First Half of the 21st Century” in Grand Strategy for India 2020 and beyond,  Krishnappa Venkatshamy and Princy George (ed), Pentagon Security International 2012.

[iv]  Bajpai, Kanti.

[v]  Bajpai, Kanti, pp. 251.

[vi]  Bajpai, kanti, pp. 252.

[vii]  Bajpai, Kanti, pp.281.

[viii]  Bajpai, kanti, pp.255.

[ix] Subrahmanyam, K. pp. 19.

[x]  Bajpai, Kanti, pp.266-267.

[xi]  Bajpai, kanti, pp.280.

[xii]  Bajpai, Kanti, pp.289


Bajpai, Kanti: “Indian strategic culture” in Michael R. Chambers (ed) South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) monographs, Strategic Studies Institute, 2002. U.S. Army War College, Carlisle.

Chandra, Bipan. Mukherjee, Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee, ”India since Independence” , Penguine books India 1999, Twelfth reprint 2007

Subrahmanyam, K, ”Grand Strategy for the First Half of the 21st Century” in Grand Strategy for India 2020 and beyond,  Krishnappa Venkatshamy and Princy George (ed), Pentagon Security International 2012

Harriet Olaisen er MA student ved India områdestudier, IKOS, UiO. Essayet ble skrevet som del av emnet SAS4510  – India as a Regional and Global Actor: The Making of Indian Foreign Affairs.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.