A Giant Among Pygmies

On Jawaharlal Nehru and his foreign policy

With all the stick the Indian government is getting over needless bans and questionable policies, it is easy to overlook at least some of the good work the Prime Minister and his cabinet has been doing. The foremost among these has been, after a long time, a coherent and progressive foreign policy. However much the opposition may berate the government, it is clear now, that at least in this aspect, India means business.

This is in sharp contrast to the last two governments, in which any kind of foreign policy was missing, due to what The Hindu calls a ‘prolonged leadership crisis.’ Also, as Tanvi Madan points out in an essay for the Brookings Institution, there is now a concerted effort from top leadership to build relations with our immediate ‘neighbourhood,’ and in External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s words, to move from looking east to ‘acting east.’ Her officers’ decisive actions, and her own proactive leadership to rescue Indian and foreign nationals from sensitive areas have been widely lauded as well.

It has now been reiterated enough times by most commentators that Prime Minister Modi has probably been one of the most active Indian heads of state in terms of foreign policy, and a few have already made the point I’m about to make — that in this respect, he is comparable only to one other. Though ideologically at loggerheads with him, Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy seems to have at least some parallels with the country’s first, that under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Both wanted to control foreign policy and made it one of their primary issues in their outlook of governance. Both wanted to strengthen ties with neighbours and were determined to use compromise to sort out issues.

Of course, this comparison disregards the major differences of time and geopolitics.

Our first Prime Minister had a much tougher job. As Ramachandra Guha writes in his book Patriots and Partisans,

“..the country was faced with horrific problems. Riots had to be contained, food shortages had to be overcome, as many as 500 princely states had to integrated, refugees had to be resettled.” And amidst all this, “a viable foreign policy had to be drafted in the threatening circumstances of the Cold War.”

It would be safe to say that no nation state was faced with such an adverse set of circumstances at its inception.

But Jawaharlal Nehru was a man forged by the independence movement and sharpened by its idealism. He worked valiantly, and by his side were leaders of the stature of Sardar Patel and Dr. Ambedkar. India as a nation was rescued by him and his peers, and that the country did not immediately implode is testament to the will of the freedom generation.

The Prime Minister in Meghalaya, Wikipedia Commons

It was then that the new Prime Minister’s foreign policy came to the fore, as he worked hard to build relations with neighbouring countries and the west. It helped that he was immensely respected in newly independent India.

Malvika Singh writes this in Perpetual City, her personal history of Delhi —

“Nehru had strong views on every conceivable subject, was hugely well read, interested, engaged, energetic, judgemental, vocal and committed to the people of India in a real, tactile way. India and its dignity were his first priority. There was only one vote bank for him. It was India.”

It was this standing among his countrymen that helped him make the unchallenged decision that would catapult India, a fledgling nation, onto the world stage, as a voice to be listened to. In 1953, at a UN speech, Indian ambassador to the United Nations and close friend of the Prime Minister, VK Krishna Menon would use the term ‘non-alignment’ for the first time.

It sent shock waves through the world and jolted the west.

In his seminal work, The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani writes,

“In (Nehru’s) determination to secure India’s sovereignty, he developed the idea of non-alignment. The principles he enunciated seem a faded and distant idea now, but in the mid 1950s they were a radical departure from the obstinate polarities of the Cold War. This was a staggering performance for a poor country that had only just emerged from colonial rule. At the core of Nehru’s idea of non-alignment was his conviction that Asia was finally taking charge of its own history as it emerged from the shadow of European domination.”

Today, the Non-Aligned movement is a shadow of those years, when an impoverished but proud new nation made a statement of intent on the world stage. But at that time, it was the equivalent of a palace coup. It made the west sit up and take notice, and was the first great international expression of independent India. It was also extremely pragmatic, as it allowed India to take aid from both the United States and the USSR.

With this, the Prime Minister inaugurated an intense period of international engagement, including the bilateral China visits in 1954, which solidified his belief in China’s friendship towards the Indian republic. The west was already charmed by him.

Ramachandra Guha quotes Nirad Chaudhuri to make this point,

“..(Nehru) is no less the bond between India and the world,.. (he is) India’s representative to the great Western democracies, and their representative to India. The Western nations certainly look upon him as such..”
Jawaharlal Nehru with Otto Grotewohl, the Prime Minister of East Germany, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, the Nehru era had other remarkable achievements, including the unification of a fragmented, diverse nation, the framing and implementation of the secular constitution, universal franchise, ensuring judiciary and press freedom, and for practically laying the foundation on which the modern Indian state is built. The builder of the Bhakra Nangal was a dreamer and an idealist, the true architect of modern India. But his greatest contribution to the nation he loved and nurtured was single handedly raising its stature in the eyes of the world, and giving it a distinct, clear identity, a national character that was rooted in its diversity.

Which is why it’s hard to digest for most that the greatest of Jawaharlal Nehru’s failures was in the same field too. Our first Prime Minister was backstabbed by the nation he believed would be India’s friend in the world, China. His engagement with the country and its history made him lenient and more trustful of our neighbour than he should have been. In spite of repeated warnings from the opposition and his own ministers, he refused to open his eyes to Chinese aggression. They attacked in 1962, inflicting a humiliating defeat on a rookie army. The first leader of the Indian republic never recovered from this betrayal.

He was dead the following year.

In his memoir An Indian Summer, acclaimed journalist James Cameron writes of Nehru,

Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946, Wikipedia Commons
“I think Jawaharlal Nehru was the most important man I ever met. Scores of intelligent and well-intentioned Indians have derided me for this, citing for me the vast fallibilities of the man and the national catastrophe of his decline. All this is true. As a national leader Nehru was cursed by his imagination. He was paralysed by his intellectual evaluation of alternatives. He was, to coin a platitude, such a genuine giant among pigmies; it fed his pride and made possible his eternal equivocations. His achievement as the first prime minister of this enormous shapeless nation was so great that we who so respected him maintained the momentum of our affection far too long..”


This was born out of a longer essay I’m trying to write about the Nehruvian idea of India and its relevance in this time and age. My reading led me to several fascinating stories, one of which is this remarkable chapter of Indian history.

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