India’s Cold War policy of Non-alignment – a blessing or a curse?   

Following from centuries of colonisation, a newly independent India was opposed to aggressive military alliances, political pacts and economic aid with strings attached. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) became a formidable force in international relations in the mid- 1950’s with the leaders of 29 post-colonial states mobilising to devise strategies which would enable their countries to develop independently from the major powers. Prime Minster of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was a central architect of NAM, encouraging many countries to resist alignment with either great power during the Cold War. As the world’s largest democracy and with close historical links to Britain, India seemed a natural fit for the western bloc. Yet inspired from the economic modelling of the Soviet Union, Nehru sought to construct a non-aligned foreign policy, which in theory, would enable India to manoeuvre between the great powers and adopt aspects from the East and West.

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Prominent leaders of the Non-aligned movement meet at the Bandung Conference, Indonesia 1955.

Supporters of India’s non-alignment argue that the strategy allowed India to take an interest-driven approach to foreign policy. India had no empire to protect, no oceans to safeguard and no ideology to promote. India’s only goal, it believed, was to survive as a free and prosperous country, while developing a unique national identity. India argued that by rejecting Cold War ideology, it could avoid being drawn into bi-polarised conflicts and could remain focused on its development. Further, this strategy allowed India accept generous aid from both the West and East without strings attached. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, India was indeed successful in attracting financial assistance from a variety of industrialised countries. The USSR and Eastern Europe contributed almost as much in capital goods and technical assistance as did the United States, Great Britain and West Germany.

In this way, Nehru’s decision to pursue a strategy of non-alignment was more than just an idealistic dream of neutrality. It was a policy based on his realistic assessment of India’s geopolitical situation at the time. However, hindsight reveals the negative consequences associated with this approach. Though India may have had a level of flexibility during the Cold War, non-alignment dictated an inward-looking and reactive foreign policy posture.   Further, the pursuit of NAM staggered India’s economic development for decades, the repercussions of which are still felt by the nation’s people today.

Non-alignment instructed India’s leaders to pursue a naïve and pacifist foreign policy strategy based upon the premise that India faced no significant security threats. India’s lack of investment in deterrence capabilities and use of diplomacy where strength was needed led to immense devastation. In 1962, the Maoist Red Army defeated Indian forces in the Himalayan heights. The victory for China was decisive- a wounded India suffered vast bloodshed and had 15,000 square miles of territory in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh seized from its grip in    days. The situation left a broken Nehru with no choice but to approach the US for military assistance.

In 1964, China tested its first nuclear weapon and New Delhi pleaded for security guarantees from the US, UK and Soviet Russia. India learnt the hard way that while non-alignment provided some strategic autonomy, its lack of security routinely placed it at the mercy of the Great powers. The capacity of Pakistan to attack India soil was also underestimated by Indian policy makers. In 1965, Pakistan attacked India across the ceasefire line in Kashmir, emboldened by US weaponry. India’s pursuit of non-alignment led the country to establish policies of friendship where strength and deterrence was called for. Ultimately, this rendered India vulnerable to regional threats and at the behest of world powers.   

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Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru talking with his Chinese counterpart Premier Zhou Enlai.

While India sought to pursue foreign policy that was independent from both major parties, it was far closer to the Soviet Union than to the United States throughout the Cold War. Nehru felt an ideological affinity with the USSR and for four decades, the Indian economy mirrored the Soviet’s centrally planned economy. Private enterprises were crumpled, India nationalised major industries and locked its economy out from trade. The economic growth of India suffered greatly as a result. Mockingly referred to as the ‘Hindi rate of growth,’ India struggled from the 1950’s to 1990’s, only developing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year. This performance was half the rate of the Asian tigers. During the same period, Indonesia sustained 6 percent growth per annum, Thailand 7 percent, Taiwan 8 percent and South Korea 9 percent. When the USSR collapsed, this marked the dramatic discrediting of   socialist economic management. Following the fall, Indian policy makers were left with a balance of payments crisis, inflation at 17 per cent per annum and an economic growth rate of 0.9 per cent.

India responded in the only plausible way forward- by radically restructuring their economy. This shift has enabled India to double economic growth. The shift away from central planning and towards the Washington Consensus has been instrumental in empowering India, a country that was previously insular and insecure about its place in the world to become a confident, emerging power. India’s non-alignment strategy which attempted to appease both sides, held the country back from developing. Thus, undermining the impact of any aid that India managed to extract from both blocs during the Cold War.

While the non-alignment policy may have given India global distinction, it failed to assist India in developing as a free and independent nation. Nehru’s commitment to a non-aligned foreign policy jeopardised India’s security and economic development. India suffered a series of devastating military setbacks during the Cold War and its economy stagnated for decades, crippled by government regulation. While the extent of India’s non-alignment policy will never fully be understood, once India distanced itself from the non-aligned movement- abandoning pacifist military polices and the socialist economic model, the country rose to economic prominence and claimed its rightful place as a regional powerbroker. For such reasons, the strategy of non-alignment adopted by India during the first stage of independence was unwise.

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Mumbai, India, 1991.



Gabrielle Harman