Evolution Of India’s Foreign Policy

Posted on August 15, 2012 in Society

By Rohit Sinha:

“Ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and till that time, when India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will rather be vague, rather inchoate, and will be groping.” 

– Jawaharlal Nehru, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in the December of 1947.

Literature on India’s foreign relations of the 1950s tends to cast Pandit Nehru as the sole articulator, formulator and executor of Indian foreign policy, unchallenged and unmatched in his expertise and reading of international relations. Such inferences are not surprising, as immediately after independence, when state nationalism and feelings of anti-imperialism were at their peak, Nehru’s India projected a very strong sense of national identity. Prior to independence, India would participate in international affairs which set the precedent that influenced her relations with countries post independence. The reasons for such precedents were that the British Empire tacitly accepted India as a quasi-independent entity in the international polity (Jayapalan 2001). This began after the 1920s when Indian troops were extensively used to serve the interests of the British Empire. Much of the objectives that were pursued pre independence, were naturally retained by the Government of Independent India. Moreover the diplomatic apparatus were initially recruited from among the Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers, who were trained by the British. There was in many ways a kind of continuity in the structure and administration that influenced decision-making in foreign policy. Political leadership was the major determinant of policy, giving it a command control attribute, which is still prevalent today.

Nehru’s Non-Alignment Doctrine

India’s Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) as a foreign policy theory was formulated by our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. As I mentioned earlier, Pt Nehru India’s projected a very strong sense of nationalism and thus he dominated India’s political scene until his death in 1964. His political charisma and the aura he acquired led his political decisions to be the unquestionable, including those in the foreign policy realm. What was a bi-polar world, NAM led by Nehru attempted to create a Third World Bloc that would concentrate on economic and social reconstruction and not get entangled in complicated alliances of rival power systems (Gavhane 2010). Leaders of newly independent countries that emerged in the wake of the end of the 2nd World War joined the movement. Nehru regarded nonalignment as the political expression of India’s traditional philosophy of peace and good will, derived primarily from his and Gandhi’s leadership of the anti-colonial struggle (Schottli 2009). During this phase, in 1955, India was offered a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat by the United States. However to the surprise of many, Nehru declined the seat and suggested the seat be given to China instead.

The Panchsheela Agreement signed between India & China, basically to streamline their trade operations in Tibet, was at that time hailed as a major foreign policy achievement for India. It symbolised the ‘Five Principles’ of peaceful co-existence. It was also the first time; India recognized China’s administrative control over Tibet. However this policy was widely criticized both internally and externally. India started to lose international relevance with the western group of industrialised nations, as its moral hectoring grew. Within the country there were strong opposition in the likes of Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (Founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, precursor to present day Bharatiya Janata Party) & Acharaya Kriplani. Their speeches in Parliament tried to justify the underlying guiding principle of nonalignment by highlighting the intended and unintended outcomes of such a policy. It was observed that by the end of 1950, India could claim no friends amongst the major powers like United States, Russia and China, despite Pt. Nehru’s vocal stance on international issues. (Schottli 2009) Defence preparedness was being overestimated in the imminent power-play in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Kashmir was already an issue with Pakistan, besides Tibet being a cause of strain between India and China. The middle path of non-alignment was followed until a border war with China in 1962 shook the Indian establishment to face the realities of power politics in the international system. Subsequent to a further conflict with Pakistan in 1965, and changes in Congress leadership (Pt. Nehru passed away in 1964 and his daughter Indira Gandhi became President of the party), India’s foreign policy began to shift.

Pragmatic Approach

The period beginning from the 1970s was of intermittent pragmatism (Malone & Mukherjee 2009). Indo-Soviet Alliance was given great push, especially in the area of defence production. India was in the process of emulating the industrialized economy of the Soviet Union. Soviet technology was used for oil exploration to promote energy security for the growing Indian economy. A mixture of both — economic and a certain tendency to limit American influence, led India to move towards the Soviets. India shed its ideological obsession with non-alignment and was embracing the benefits of political groupings and strategic partnerships.

National security and foreign policy are impacted in two ways. First, at any given time, domestic compulsions influence how states act and react to events and policies of other countries in the international system. Second, the impact of domestic factors is sometimes easy to read into India’s own actions vis a vis neighbours and other States, both diplomatically and militarily (Malone & Mukherjee 2009). Populations in border regions tend to share common ethnic and religious bonds and thus many times the Indian Government would be forced to intervene and would require being always attentive to preferences of domestic actors. This was the case of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The Indira Gandhi government extended support to the rebels against the East Pakistan Army and led to the creation of the Bangladesh state. Such issues tend to destabilize border regions with neighbouring countries. Kashmir, Tarai region of Nepal & Arunachal Pradesh are prime examples where demographic resemblance has impacted foreign policy with the concerned nation.

1971 was also the time when American relations with India reached perhaps the lowest, owing to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of “tilt towards Pakistan” (Nagarajan 1980). The US refused to condemn Pakistani policies in the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. After India decided to enter the war, the US Seventh Fleet started to circle the waters near the Bay of Bengal, adding to the tension. India conducted its first nuclear test explosion called Pokhran-I in 1974. It was the first confirmed nuclear test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the UNSC. What was meant to be a test for peaceful purposes, it was opposed from many corners. This development is significant to India’s foreign policy as it propelled India into a league of select few. Military preparedness and capabilities were being developed as a currency of power.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed resulting in the end of the Cold War era. This significantly affected India’s foreign policy, as it did for much of the world. Additionally during that time, the Indian economy was reeling under bureaucratic hurdles of the license raj. There was limited access to western technology and finance. Economic interests had taken a backseat. The nation’s Balance of Payment situation was getting worse by the day. The economic crisis ushered India into a new phase to growth and development.

Economic Diplomacy

With the opening of the Indian economy, there was a new understanding in the use of foreign policy. One of the most important objectives of foreign policy is to explore prospects for the development of a country through external relations, and to create greater opportunities for material, technological and monetary interactions. Needless to say, the liberalization policy had a major impact on India’s foreign economic policy. The basic parameters that had defined India’s approach towards private capital, trade policy, foreign investment norms, import-export conditionality’s, external assistance and global economic institutions were all redefined. (Acharya 2009) Industrial deregulation and trade liberalisation reform process was expedited. Industrial licensing was abolished and investment decisions were no longer required to be approved by the government. Competition was encouraged with capital available more easily at economical rates.

Export promotion councils, special economic zones, trade facilitation centres were set up. Transaction costs were reduced substantially and businesses started to grow at faster rates. India was one of the founding members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and also became an important advocate of the rights to developing nations against unfair advantages/monopoly exercised by developed nations. Trade and bilateral economic cooperation opened doors for innovation. India no longer discriminated much between Russia, America, Israel, Iran or ASEAN countries. It was willing to do business with all. Economic linkages were the new factors that contributed to stability rather than defence build-up (Malone & Mukherjee 2009). Foreign policy was no more influenced by armament purchases. India’s leverage to the world became its newly developed economic engine.

However relations with Pakistan in the mid 1990s went downhill. India attracted the world attention towards Pakistan backed terrorism in Kashmir. The Kargil War resulted in a major diplomatic victory for India. Pakistan also acquired nuclear weapons which completely changed the security situation in the Indian subcontinent. Though relations with Pakistan have been edgy off late, post the 26/11 attack at Mumbai, there has been considerable confidence building measures from both sides, not seen before. With the huge trade volume that crosses the Indian Ocean every day, India has a great duty in policing the waters to ensure safe movement of ships. The Indian Navy has expanded its capabilities to this effect and aims to be a blue water navy in the coming years. Aggressive patrolling of seas and forceful persuasion goes to show that India is embracing larger responsibilities in the world economy. One element of national interest that most foreign and domestic actors agree on is the logic of economics.


One of the most significant developments that have influenced Indian Foreign Policy is the advent of regional parties in the Indian polity. Taking advantage of the prevailing electoral situation, they have been able to coerce the government to take foreign policy decisions based on narrow regional considerations. Foreign policy being the prerogative of the Central government has been ransacked, undermining national security (E.g. Sri Lanka, Teesta river dispute).Political fragmentation on important foreign policy issues have been a concern in India. Even though there are defined official institutions that undertake the formulation of policy, those being the Cabinet, Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence, various forms of defence and intelligence organisation, a stand on a foreign policy issue is mostly impulsive. A consistent and coherent policy stand is almost always absent, leaving political parties to exploit the gaps in decision-making.

In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in March this year, titled Failure 2.0, said that the Indian experiment with non-alignment was probably better than what it is pursuing now. The US based magazine has highlighted how India has snubbed global call for oil embargo against Iran and on another issue, abstained from voting in the UNSC on Libya. Those in the US who have championed closer strategic ties were deeply disappointed and are already arguing that the US is squandering valuable diplomatic capital on an unreliable partner. But putting aside the merits of the argument, it is indeed vital that India moves from a more reactive to an active stance in its decision-making, thereby giving credence to its judgements. Given India’s impending relative rise in the international system, India is bound to be confronted by a number of challenges. Increased standing will mean that India will have to take positions on major international issues and regional conflicts (Rajamohan 2006). This would at some point or the other invite India to be aligned to one of the major powers. Thus having a fractured polity on international issues will not aid in establishing India as a power to reckon with.


JAYAPALAN, N (2001) Book titled “Foreign Policy of India”
GAVHANE, Dr M. (2010) ‘Foreign Policy of Jawaharlal Nehru’. Department of Political Science Rajarshi Shahu College, Latur.
SCHOTTLI, J (2009) ‘Strategy & Vision in Politics. Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy choices and designing of political institutions’. University of Heidelberg, Summer 2009.
MALONE, DAVID & ROHAN MUKHERJEE (2009) ‘Polity, Security, and Foreign Policy in Contemporary India’ in South Asia’s Weak States. Ed. T.V. Paul
NAGARAJAN, KV (1980) ‘Indo-US Relations in the 1980s’ in Volume 3, Issue 1 of The Washington Quarterly.
ACHARYA, A (2009) ‘The Evolving Trends in India’s Foreign Economic Policy: A Comparative Study of Pre and Post Liberalisation Phases’. In India’s Foreign Policy. Eds Ghosh Anjali, Tridib Chakraborti, Jyoti Majumdar & Shibashis Chatterjee.
DHUME, S (2012) ‘Failure 2.0’ in Foreign Policy. March 16, 2012. URL: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/03/16/India_nonalignment_2.0_failure?page=full

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: The author is a Legislative Assistant to Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow at PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi. He is also associated with the Youth Forum on Foreign Policy and writes on issues concerning India’s strategic positioning in the world.[/box]