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Sushant Awasthi asked: Is the policy of Non-Alignment introduced by Pt. Nehru still relevant, and how far is it justifying?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Non-alignment is not an optimum foreign policy for India in the emerging international environment. The policy was premised on certain factors that are no longer applicable. The first of these was the clear distinction that existed at that time between the West and the Rest, with the West dominating and attempting to perpetuate its dominance over the Rest, while for their part the Rest sought to become independent, assert their independence and stave off neo-imperialist tendencies. A corollary to this was the sense of solidarity that the leaders and peoples of the Rest had for each other in their struggle for independence and later in their attempts to stave off Western dominance. Hence, Asian solidarity, pan-Asianism, Afro-Asian solidarity, Third World solidarity, the Non-Aligned Movement, the call for a New International Economic Order, and so on and so forth. Complicating this dynamic was a second factor -- the Cold War ideological and geopolitical rivalry between the camps led by America and the Soviet Union, a rivalry between two of the products (liberalism and communism) of the Age of European Enlightenment. The foreign policy of non-alignment and the domestic pursuit of a mixed economy model were meant to enable India avoid entanglement and navigate between these two powerful ideological currents and the manifestations of their military power and rivalry around the world. Thirdly, India’s condition in the late 1940s and early 1950s was that of a much weaker, less stabler, and a just partitioned country, which, moreover, had enormous internal challenges before it; people even doubted whether it will survive for long. This too necessitated avoiding external conflicts and fully focusing on managing the domestic challenges.

    None of this of course meant that India was able to practice non-alignment in its purest form especially in the latter part of the Cold War. Notions of solidarity and peace were trumped by the imperatives of national security caused by Pakistan's congenital distrust of India and China’s sense of being the greater Asian power. While the challenge from a relatively weak Pakistan was easily dealt with, with the capabilities that India was able to muster without much difficulty, India had to lean upon the Soviet Union to deal with the greater challenge posed by China through the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, during the Cold War, non-alignment was not viewed or practised as a religious dictum, even though it had become a mantram chanted to cast a veil over India’s practice of the much-reviled balance of power politics.

    Today, of course, things are much different. The rise of the Rest has meant that the West is in retreat. The West is no longer the fulcrum of the international economy, nor is it the main theatre of geopolitical rivalry. These distinctions now go to Asia or to be more precise the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific region. Even though India continues to face enormous domestic challenges, the fact remains that it has made considerable progress over the last six decades to emerge as a trillion dollar economy with one of the fastest rates of economic growth and projected to emerge as one of the top three economies of the world by mid-century. Indian notions of solidarity among Asian, Afro-Asian and Third World states are now leavened with a greater appreciation of national and geopolitical rivalries as well as of ongoing changes in the world’s and Asia’s balance of power. Unlike the 1940s and 1950s when India was a rather weak player whose weight was insignificant to make an impact on the global balance of power, today it is an important weight in the Asian balance of power. Indeed, India’s foreign policy is now aimed at fostering a stable balance of power in Asia and in ensuring that the continent does not become a unipolar space dominated by China in particular. If India were to pursue a foreign policy of non-alignment, then that will only hasten the emergence of Asia as a geopolitical space dominated by a single power before which India will have to kowtow. How many people in India can envisage such a prospect with equanimity?