When Nehru Looked Out

The book recaptures his true idealism in foreign policy,even if somewhat uncritically

Written by Rajesh Rajagopalan | Published: May 12, 2012 3:30 am

Book: The Peacemakers

Author: Manu Bhagavan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 237

Price: Rs 499

For the last two decades,as India reformulated its engagement with the world to take into account both its growing international clout as well as the end of the Cold War,a key issue has been the foundations on which this reformulation should rest. Nehruvians were increasingly dismayed by what they saw as the abandonment of some of India’s core principles — non-alignment,Third World solidarity and,most importantly,the transformative potential of India’s idealism. For others,Nehru was much more of a Realist than traditional Nehruvians assumed. They saw Nehru’s idealism as either a long-view Realism or,more crudely,as a clever mask. Manu Bhagavan’s deeply researched and well-written account injects a necessary dose of substance into a question that has hitherto been debated more on faith than knowledge.

Bhagavan examines one little recognised aspect of Nehru’s worldview and policy: the struggle to establish global human rights norms through the United Nations which Nehru saw as a pathway towards his ultimate objective of “One World”,an undefined kind of global government. The point person was Nehru’s sister,Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit,who represented Nehru’s views at the UN and as India’s ambassador to both the Soviet Union and the United States. These efforts were less than successful,but the most fascinating part of the story is that of Nehru’s ideas about internationalism itself. As much as a work on India’s early steps in the global arena,this is a story about Nehru’s internationalist philosophy.

At first brush,this is an account that will gladden the hearts of Nehruvian idealists,but the story is more complex. Contrary to the tendency in subsequent Indian foreign policy to fiercely defend national sovereignty,Nehru was an internationalist who saw human rights as a global value that required international scrutiny and intervention. Far from defending national sovereignty,he saw sovereignty as an obstacle and argued that it should not be allowed to block the international defence of human rights. This was a deeply interventionist view of human rights promotion,more R2P than Panch Sheel. Nevertheless,he also compromised when it came to defining human rights,accepting Moscow’s stratagems that served,in effect,to reduce the efficacy of international scrutiny.

Still,Bhagavan is firm about Nehru’s idealism,at one point calling him a utopian. And in Bhagavan’s characterisation,“idealism” and “utopianism” are anything but pejorative. This highlights the primary shortcoming of this work: despite Bhagavan’s painstaking detailing,this is a deeply adulatory treatment with nary a criticism. All shortcomings and failures of Indian policy are others’ fault rather than Nehru’s: India’s failures in the UN are blamed on the superpowers who did not understand his nuances; India’s failure to condemn Moscow over the invasion of Hungary in 1957 (which undermined India’s moral standing) was because Krishna Menon jumped in to defend Soviet actions without instructions from Nehru; Menon is also blamed,for good measure,for both the Goa invasion in 1961 and India’s defeat in the Sino-Indian border war.

But the failure of Nehru’s efforts was not so much others’ fault as much as that of the impracticality of Nehru’s vision. An important question,and unfortunately one which Bhagavan does not ask,is how Nehru and his compatriots thought that a poor,weak and newly independent India expected to have the kind of clout in the global arena to pull such weight as to transform the very nature of international relations. The answer is not entirely clear,and it does not appear to have been seriously considered by Nehru or anyone else,though there are some clues. The assumption,and it was nothing more than that,was apparently that some combination of the force of India’s arguments,the weight of India’s size (“one-fifth of mankind”) and the moral standing of India’s non-violent freedom struggle gave India a global appeal that would overcome its material weakness. Nehru’s and Pandit’s undeniable popularity were seen as indicators of India’s clout; their oratorical brilliance would be sufficient to turn the day.

This illustrates the core of idealism: a touching faith in the capacity of human agency. And much like the fate of a canoeist who gets too close to a waterfall,the results are usually as unfortunate as they are predictable. The failure of Nehru’s “One World” vision would not have been a surprise even in the most propitious of circumstances. At the height of the Cold War,it was preordained. What mattered ultimately was not so much India’s moral appeal but its material weakness.

For all his shortcomings,Nehru was a sincere idealist,committed to a deeply held and noble,if impossibly impractical,global vision. A half century after his death,India’s foreign policy is left with neither his utopian grandeur nor any form of the Realism he despised but with a hollow idealism bereft of his sincerity. It is reduced to self-righteousness serving not grand designs but defending murderous regimes such as the one in Damascus in the name of Third World solidarity. Bhagavan’s book recaptures Nehru’s true idealism,even if somewhat uncritically.

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