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The Legacy of Nehruvianism and the Implications for India’s Strategic Culture

An Interview with Ian Hall

By Mengjia Wan
November 21, 2016

While India continues to grow as both an economic and military power, New Delhi can be expected to exercise restraint in its international cooperation across these spheres. In this Q&A, Ian Hall, a professor of international relations at Griffith University, explains why India remains restrained in its international behavior. He argues that although realpolitik and Hindu nationalism offer alternative options to the Nehruvian tradition that has dominated Indian strategic culture, Nehruvianism continues to have an overwhelming impact on the country’s strategic thinking. The result is a cautious attitude toward using military power, on the one hand, and a desire for status and autonomy, on the other hand. Dr. Hall is the author of the chapter "The Persistence of Nehruvianism in India's Strategic Culture" in Strategic Asia 2016–17: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific.

Why is strategic culture important to understand India’s strategic thought and foreign policy?

Strategic culture is indispensable for understanding how policymakers in different contexts make foreign and security policy—and, importantly, why these policies take the form that they do. Some analysts have tried to do away with culture in its broadest sense—that is, understood as the beliefs and concepts that shape the worldviews of policymakers. However, they struggle to explain the emergence and rationale of particular policies simply by referencing the capabilities that states have at their disposal and by assuming that policymakers apprise those capabilities and the challenges they face in instrumentally rational terms.

In the Indian case, strategic culture helps explain why India has taken a markedly different approach to national security and foreign policy from similar states in similar circumstances. Unlike China or Pakistan, postcolonial India did not seek out alliances with great powers to shore up its national security, remaining "nonaligned" even after major wars in 1962 and 1965. Instead, it relied on often creative and adept diplomacy, especially within the UN system, and invested a far lower percentage of its resources in defense than other postcolonial states facing similar challenges, despite significant threats to India’s national security from two of its neighbors. Strategic culture also helps explain why India has traveled a markedly different path to a nuclear deterrent than any other nuclear-armed state, adding bombs and delivery systems to its arsenal far more slowly than its capacity to do so might allow. And last but not least, India’s strategic culture helps explain why it has been so cautious in its reception of U.S. overtures since the early 2000s, despite the progress that has been made in building a strategic partnership between the two countries.

What are some of the primary sources of India’s strategic culture? How do they continue to influence India’s strategic culture in the present day?

Indian strategic thinkers have an extraordinarily wide range of sources on which to draw, as modern India has inherited texts and concepts from several major religious and philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and a number of others. Generally, however, they make use of two sets of intellectual resources: ancient Hindu texts, on the one hand, and the thought of major modern nationalists, on the other. Among the first, the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, loom largest in the minds of many Indian strategic thinkers, as well as the Arthashastra, an extraordinary treatise on statecraft written during the Mauryan period, in the fourth century BCE. Among the second, the works of both secular and religious nationalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century remain influential—above all, Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas, but also those of such varied thinkers as Mohandas Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda.

While India’s policy elite—and Indians more broadly—may not be uniformly familiar with all these resources, most are familiar with the concepts and arguments that the texts contain. They thus provide a set of intellectual tools that policymakers can use to construct responses to challenges that will be understood by the rest of the elite and by the wider public.

In your chapter, you identify three traditions of Indian strategic thought: Nehruvianism, realpolitik, and Hindu nationalism. What are the most important differences between these three traditions?

Nehruvians are generally concerned with garnering international respect for India’s proper standing in the world and its civilizational inheritance, ensuring that India does not become dependent on other states or groups of states, and building and using sufficient military power to secure the state, but to keep it strictly under civilian control. They recognize that the possession and use of force is necessary in international relations as currently conducted, but they deprecate both on moral grounds. For those reasons, Nehruvians favor "strategic restraint," which involves exercising caution in acquiring and using military power. As modernists, they want India to develop, both socially and economically, but their concern about minimizing dependence and maintaining autonomy makes them ambivalent at best about globalization and liberalization.

Hindu nationalists share the Nehruvians’ concern with India’s status but are particularly interested in global recognition of the greatness and value of Hinduism and Hindu approaches to life. They also want to ensure that India does not become dependent on other states, and for that reason, many of them are skeptical about liberal economics and deeper integration into the global market. Moreover, Hindu nationalists have surprisingly ambivalent views about the possession and use of military power. On the one hand, they want India to project a more muscular image; on the other, they sometimes argue that once all peoples acknowledge the truths of the Hindu sanatana dharma (loosely translated as "true religion"), international conflicts driven by ideological and religious divisions will come to an end, and military power will become unnecessary.

Realpolitikers, by contrast, are mostly pragmatic and dismiss Nehruvian and Hindu nationalist obsessions with status as distractions. They want India to become a "normal" power, acquiring and wielding military power like other states. They also want India to liberalize and open up its economy to the global market much more fully in order to stimulate faster economic development and build the resources necessary for military modernization and the addition of new capabilities.

What makes it possible for Nehruvianism to persist and to continue to dominate India’s strategic culture?

I think Nehruvianism persists for a number of reasons. First, there is the stature of Nehru himself as an anti-colonial activist, an extraordinary intellectual, and India’s first prime minister. Second, there is the direct influence that Nehru exercised over the foreign policy and defense establishments for almost twenty years after 1947. Nehru held the post of minister of external affairs during his tenure as prime minister; he was also, at times, defense minister. He selected individual officers for the Indian diplomatic service and presided over promotions and other processes. He was able, in other words, to shape parts of the strategic elite according to his prejudices and preferences.

Third, Nehru’s party, the Congress Party, has ruled India for considerable periods of time after his death in 1964, and it makes political sense for them to pay at least lip service to his ideas. Fourth, Nehru’s strategic thinking was designed, in part at least, to fit India’s strategic predicament. Nonalignment, in particular, was intended to allow India time to build state capacity to address the particular challenges faced by a large, relatively poor, underdeveloped, and fragmented society situated in a difficult neighborhood with direct threats to its security, while maintaining a democratic form of government. As long as India remained in such circumstances, Nehruvianism persisted; only as things have started to change, and economic growth rates have increased, have we started to see the emergence of coherent alternatives. Yet for a variety of reasons—above all because there has been no leader in foreign and security policy who shares Nehru’s level of influence and because no politician has succeeded in devising a truly credible alternative vision—those coherent alternatives have struggled to emerge, leaving the field to Nehruvianism, simply by default, even as India has changed.

The big question is whether India is now starting to see signs of change. I think it is. India is beginning to shed its inhibitions about establishing stronger bilateral ties in the areas of defense and security with the United States and other countries, especially Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam. It has become a member of a number of regional institutions with a security focus, such as the East Asia Summit, and has applied to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. India is slowly opening itself up to the global market and is trying to stimulate the domestic manufacturing sector with foreign investment under Narendra Modi’s "Make in India" scheme. It now has significant trade and investment relationships with both the ASEAN grouping and China. For these reasons, I’ve suggested that India might be moving from nonalignment to something that Shashi Tharoor and others call "multialignment"—albeit with the ostensible aim of reinforcing its strategic autonomy.

What are the implications of India’s strategic culture for U.S. policy?

If Nehruvianism is indeed persisting in Indian strategic culture, as I argue it is, then Washington will continue to face some challenges in dealing with New Delhi. These include managing India's skepticism about elements of the liberal international order, adherence to strategic restraint, and desire to be accorded what its elite regards as the country's proper status.

The elite still has a deep-rooted concern for status—for recognition of the great intellectual and cultural riches that modern India has inherited—that requires careful management. While U.S. diplomats have gone to significant lengths to treat India with the respect its elite believes that the country is due, the elite continues to be acutely sensitive to issues of status and recognition. The recent outcry about India’s putative membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group illustrates these sensitivities well. While China was decried for apparently blocking that bid, there was also speculation in New Delhi—informed or otherwise—that the United States had not pushed for India’s case as hard as it could and should have done.

India’s elite also remains ambivalent about liberal agendas in international relations and about the United States' role in promoting them. Nehruvian strategic culture generates conservative attitudes with regard to the challenges of maintaining international order. It underpins a preference for hard interpretations of state sovereignty, nonintervention, and noninterference and sustains skepticism about the promotion of democracy, humanitarian intervention, and doctrines like "responsibility to protect." Nehruvianism also inculcates cautiousness about liberal economic agendas, and indeed about liberal attempts to build institutions and regimes that may limit state autonomy and entrench dependency.

Finally, while the United States might want India to become more assertive, at least in some areas and at some times, or to build its capabilities faster, Indian policymakers will likely continue to adhere to strategic restraint—notwithstanding occasional acts to demonstrate the country’s capability and resolve, such as the recent raid into Pakistan. This does not just mean that India’s elite will continue to be careful about using force to advance its national interests. It also means that the Indian government will continue to move slowly in key areas of military modernization and capacity building, engaging in unilateral arms control so as not to provoke the country’s neighbors into adopting an overt policy of containment that would harm Indian interests.

This is most obvious in India’s nuclear weapons program, which has developed more slowly than any other state’s, both in terms of constructing and stockpiling bombs and in terms of developing delivery systems. Although India’s defense scientists often loudly trumpet their successes in building and testing new systems, it is far from clear that India is close to obtaining an operational triad, despite possessing some key elements. While this slow progress can be attributed in part to failings within the defense establishment, it also offers some reassurance to others, especially China and Pakistan, about Indian intentions.

Mengjia Wan is an Intern with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.

Ian Hall is a Professor of International Relations at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and the Acting Director of the Griffith Asia Institute.

Strategic Asia 2016–17: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific, the sixteenth volume in the Strategic Asia series, examines how the region's major powers view international politics and the use of military force. Learn more.