- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

The Persistence of Nehruvianism in India's Strategic Culture

Ian Hall


This chapter analyzes India’s strategic culture in terms of the cultural resources on which its strategic elite draws, the main traditions of strategic thought, and their influence on India’s behavior.

Main Argument

India’s strategic culture is informed by ideas taken from Hindu texts, nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious revivalists, and modernist thinkers. These ideas shape three traditions of strategic thought: Nehruvianism, realpolitik, and Hindu nationalism. The Nehruvian tradition has been dominant since independence in 1947, underpinning a commitment to strategic restraint; the other two traditions are less influential on policy but important because of the potential alternatives they offer to Nehruvianism. Moreover, if the Hindu nationalist tradition did begin to assert greater influence over India’s strategic culture, Indian behavior would likely remain restrained, as that tradition emphasizes achieving domestic social unity as a precondition for the international recognition of Indian greatness.

Policy Implications

  • Although India continues to grow in economic and military power, it remains wedded to strategic restraint, underpinned by the Nehruvian tradition of strategic thought and practice, which will continue to shape its approach not just to South Asia but also to China and the U.S.
  • Given that India’s strategic elite remains concerned with status-seeking and recognition of civilizational greatness, and remains skeptical about elements of the contemporary liberal international order, India is unlikely to align itself fully with Western policy agendas.
  • The U.S. and other states will need to allow India time to further modernize its economy, develop its military capabilities, and finesse its approach to regional security. Policy and behavioral consistency will also be required to entrench the perception in the minds of India’s strategic elite that the U.S. is a credible and reliable long-term strategic partner for India.