When Nehru Looked East: Origins of India-US Suspicion and India-China Rivalry
Francine R. Frankel
With access to the first Prime Minister's papers, Francine Frankel builds a solid account of his ideas on diplomacy, which continue to define India's foreign policy...
Writing in The Atlantic monthly in April 1940, Jawaharlal Nehru, by that time one of the most influential leaders of India's national movement, wrote: "India is far from America but more and more our thoughts go to this great democratic country, which seems almost alone, to keep the torch of democratic freedom alight..." Nehru, with strong views against imperialism and fascism, saw the democratic U.S. as an ally of freedom loving peoples in the colonies. "There was a real possibility that India would emerge as a friendly power to the U.S.," writes Francine Frankel in her latest book, When Nehru Looked East: Origins of India-US Suspicion and India-China Rivalry.
But history turned out to be different. Frankel, a professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, explores the roots of India-China-U.S. ties in the book. Having got access to the Nehru papers, Frankel has built a solid account of Nehru's ideas on diplomacy, which continue to define India's foreign policy.
Well before India gained independence, Nehru was particular that India should remain neutral in the great power contest between the Soviet Union and the U.S. This was partly because Nehru considered India as a great Asian power and he wanted to avoid India being sucked into a military conflict. He had positive views on the U.S., but he later concluded that American policies towards India had always been "subservient" to that of the British Empire. Heavily influenced by his anti-colonial views and struggles, Nehru turned to Asia, considered China a civilisational partner, and kept India out of any alliance system. But his 'Asianism' backfired. He was humiliated by the Chinese in 1962.
Frankel blames Nehru's 'Asianism' and non-alignment for India's China debacle. It's true that Nehru miscalculated on China. He never expected China, a country which he defended in international fora, would attack India. Frankel's indirect counter-factual argument is that had Nehru chosen to be an ally of the U.S., he could have taken on China better.
She writes: "The outstanding question on this study ends in this: Will India be able to set aside its post-Independence suspicion of American motives to join the U.S. in establishing a new natural balance in Asia?"
The title of her book also refers to "suspicion" between India and the U.S. But it was more than a suspicion, which Frankel's own account testifies. The strategic dilemma Nehru faced was real. Nehru was wrong on China; but he was right on Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S. Nehru had trusted the West when he agreed to take the Kashmir issue to the UN, but he saw India's cause being betrayed at the UN and he needed the Soviet Union to bail India out. He saw that Pakistan was being used by the U.S. and he was right. By the time the Cold War set in, Pakistan had joined the U.S.-sponsored alliance systems, and the U.S., which Nehru once saw as a torchbearer of democracy, had turned out to be an aggressor in Southeast Asia.
Frankel appears to have overlooked these factors while exploring the origins of Nehru's Asianism. While reviewing British historian Perry Anderson's The Indian Ideology, Prabhat Patnaik called his account "modern India sans the impact of capitalism". If one paraphrases Prof. Patnaik, the key problem with Frankel's account is that it's modern India's foreign policy sans the impact of imperialism.
Frankel's insinuation that an alliance with the U.S. would have allowed India to resist China's expansionist policies better also holds weak when it's tested on the altar of history.
Pakistan had submitted itself as a client state of the U.S. It joined American-led alliance systems in West Asia and South East Asia. It had signed a bilateral treaty with the U.S. Still, the U.S. could do little to help Pakistan in the 1971 war with India. New Delhi checkmated Pakistan and the U.S. with its outreach to the Soviet Union, which had despatched a task force to the Indian Ocean to prevent a U.S. intervention and vetoed an American-sponsored resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire, allowing India to fight till the Pakistanis surrendered unconditionally. India managed to achieve this without joining any Soviet-led alliance system.
Unlike Nehru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn't have any ideological commitment to 'Asianism'. He didn't turn towards China at the expense of India's ties with the U.S. On the contrary, India's ties with the U.S. deepened under his leadership. Could it deter China? The Doklam standoff of 2017 and the violent clashes in eastern Ladakh earlier this year, which have effectively altered the status quo on the Line of Actual Control, are comparable to the border clashes of 1959.
Nehru realised by the late 1950s that India had a serious problem on the border. "On one hand, India must not surrender to Chinese claims. On the other, India had to remember that 'China is our permanent neighbour and to invite trouble from China is wisdom neither in the present nor in the future'," Frankel writes, quoting Nehru. Almost six decades later, the dilemma stays real for the Indian leadership.
Courtesy: THE HINDU