India’s foreign relations and the course of history

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public and undisguised reference to China’s expansionism in his address to Indian troops last week, on July 3 in Ladakh was so obvious that the Chinese lost no time in rejecting the allegation. As proof of China’s non-expansionism, their spokesman, denying the charge, said that China had signed boundary agreements with all but two of its neighbours; in a Tweet, the spokesperson said: “#China has demarcated boundary with 12 of its 14 neighboring countries through peaceful negotiations, turning land borders into bonds of friendly cooperation.”

Down memory lane

Mr. Modi’s deliberate and no doubt well-thought-out speech does raise a question in one’s mind. Did he realise China’s expansionism only after what has happened in eastern Ladakh in recent weeks? Or, has he had such thoughts about China all along and decided to give expression to them only now? One can expect that Mr. Modi must have had the measure of China’s President Xi Jinping during his many meetings with him over the years.

The Prime Minister’s talk of Chinese expansionism reminded me of what Mrs. Indira Gandhi told me more than once during the time I served in her Prime Minister’s Office. She said: “I can think of a time down the road in future when we might have normal, peaceful relations with Pakistan, but never with China because China basically is an expansionist power.” She distrusted China as she did other countries including the Soviet Union. She surely did not trust Pakistan. Perhaps her basic approach in foreign policy was that in international relations, there is no such thing as trust. U.S. President Ronald Reagan talked of ‘Trust, but verify”; Mrs. Gandhi’s approach seemed to be: “Verify and still not trust”.

Nehru, China and Kashmir

Jawaharlal Nehru, on the other hand, had convinced himself that China will not attack India. His Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, likely played a big part in inclining Nehru towards this conviction. Regrettably, none of his advisers cautioned him against this miscalculation; most of them had no experience in foreign relations. Nehru was not guided by any ideological considerations. Yes, he dreamt of India, and him, playing a big role on the world stage and believed that China could be a partner in that endeavour. Even the present government sees India acting as “Vishwaguru”. Whatever his reasons, there is no doubt that his China policy was hugely faulty. It would be healthy for all of us admirers of Nehru — a rapidly dwindling tribe — including the Indian National Congress party, to acknowledge this. But Nehru did not commit any Himalayan blunder in Kashmir. When a ceasefire was called for in January 1949, it was not because he was pacifist by nature or that he trusted the United Nations or any other country to label Pakistan as aggressor and persuade it to vacate the aggression. By that time, he had seen enough of British duplicity and America’s leaving the lead on the Kashmir issue to the British. The reality on the ground was that the Indian Army was in no position to run over the whole of Jammu and Kashmir at that time. This has been definitively and conclusively brought out by respected scholars as well as in the official history of the war published by the Defence Ministry several years later, after thorough research and interviews with all the relevant players, including seniormost Indian military officers, at the time.

Nor was Nehru influenced by any ideological bias. I do not know for a fact that he was a leftist. I do know that he believed strongly that in foreign policy, national interest was the only guiding principle. In his response to a letter Albert Einstein wrote to him a few weeks before Independence, Nehru described foreign policy as essentially “selfish”. He was also clear in his mind that India’s interest lay with the West. India needed technology and other assistance which he was convinced could be obtained only from America. The Soviets, he believed, were of no use in this matter. It was only after the Americans concluded the military agreement with Pakistan and started giving it massive quantities of arms that Nehru began looking to the Soviet Union. The mistakes and even the blunder over China that he committed were caused by wrong assessments and not due to any ideological factors.

Handling Pakistan

Mrs. Gandhi has been similarly accused of being naive and too trusting when she allowed Pakistan’s 90,000 prisoners of war (POWs) to return to their country without getting anything in return. Nobody is mentioning what she could have asked as quid pro quo. Should she have asked Pakistan to vacate all the territory it had occupied in Jammu and Kashmir? And for how long should she have kept the POWs in our country, until Pakistan returned our territory? Again, at Simla, nobody could state with conviction if she really believed that Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would live up to his commitment, oral as it was, to transform the ceasefire line into an international border. And if Bhutto did give such promise — which Pakistan denies — and implemented it, would the Indian Parliament have accepted it? Today’s ruling party wants to reclaim (by what means has not been clarified) even Aksai Chin from China. It is nobody’s idea that India should give up its claims to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Aksai Chin; the question is only about reiterating the claims publicly and in a charged atmosphere. As they say, all foreign policy is essentially domestic policy and this is true of all governments everywhere and at all times.

The purpose in mentioning all of the above is not to exonerate any of the previous generation of leadership. They must be held accountable for the mistakes or blunders they might have committed. They acted, in the prevailing circumstances, as best as they could, according to their perception of national interest. After all, national interest is that which the government of the day decides it is. One government might conclude that the civil nuclear deal with the United States served India’s national interest; some other government ruled by some other party or even the same party but at another time and in different circumstances may think otherwise. By the same token, Mr. Modi, in the conduct of India’s foreign policy, surely does not allow any extraneous considerations to influence his thinking, and is basing his approach by what he perceives as furthering our national interests. History will pronounce its analysis in due course.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 7:47:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indias-foreign-relations-and-the-course-of-history/article32006793.ece

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