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Revisiting Nehruvian Idealism in the Context of Contemporary Imperialism

A critical understanding of Nehruvian idealism is needed especially when there is a tendency to hold Nehru responsible for nearly everything that was wrong with India before liberalisation and globalisation. This paper evaluates Nehru's vision on Asian cooperation and argues that this was neither an armchair nor an utopian vision but historically grounded in concrete political struggle and personal experience. Revisiting his idealism offers the possibility of fashioning a stronger and real ground for shaping another resurgence.

Revisiting Nehruvian Idealism in the Context of Contemporary Imperialism

A critical understanding of Nehruvian idealism is needed especially when there is a tendency to hold Nehru responsible for nearly everything that was wrong with India before liberalisation and globalisation. This paper evaluates Nehru’s vision on Asian cooperation and argues that this was neither an armchair nor an utopian vision but historically grounded in concrete political struggle and personal experience. Revisiting his idealism offers the possibility of fashioning a stronger and real ground for shaping another resurgence.


The routine way to overthrow a civilian government is to establish relations with elements in the military, the folks who will have to do the job. The project sometimes meets with success; Indonesia and Chile were two recent examples. Iran turned out to be a harder nut to crack. Rights accrue to various actors according to their place within the general strategic conception. The US has rights by definition. The cops on the beat have rights unless they defect, in which case, if too independent, they become enemies. The local managers have rights as long as they keep to their business. If an “iron fist” is needed to preserve “stability”, so be it.

–Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, 1996, pp 139-40.

The idea of a mixed economy is possibly the most valuable heritage that the 20th century bequeathed to the 21st in the realm of economic policy.

–Dani Rodrik, ‘Development Strategies for the 21st Century’, Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics 2000.

he opening decade of the 21st century is quite significantfrom the viewpoint of evaluating Jawaharlal Nehru’sconception of Asian solidarity both for contemporary andhistorical reasons. After all, it is increasingly being asserted invarious quarters that the coming century will most probably bedominated by China and India. Glorious days seemingly awaitthese ancient civilisations which, we are being repeatedly informed by the apologists of globalisation, are said to be poisedon the threshold of global dominance once again. Since the 18thcentury history seems to have come a full circle.1 One only hopesit is not repeated! Analysts tell us that while the west, and speciallya heavily indebted US, is declining, Asia, led by its two giants,is rising to claim a rightful place in world history. Such viewsare hardly new and have periodically surfaced to hold sway overopinion in the past with reference to other countries. For instance,the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent formation of the USSRinspired seven decades of socialist experiments across the globe.Perhaps the rise of Japan at the beginning of the 20th centuryhad inspired similar feelings, and fears we must not fail tomention, in a different context. However, it was the promise thatAsia’s future held for many of his anti-imperialist contemporariesthat began Jawaharlal Nehru’s political journey. From the momentJapan defeated Russia, Nehru began dreaming of leading Indiato freedom from colonial slavery. Japan, to begin with, did notappear as an imperialist power to Nehru. In 1905, it was morean apposite symbol of Asian awakening in the face of westernimperialism and colonialism than the exemplary marriage of nationalism and imperialist aggression which it later became.2 By the 1930s and 1940s Nehru’s views on Japanese nationalismhad changed radically in line with his critique of fascism andNazism.

Nehru’s Autobiography mentions the tremendous impact theRusso-Japanese war of 1904-05 had on him. The Japanese victories,he wrote, “stirred up my enthusiasm and I waited eagerly forthe papers for fresh news daily”. This is easily understood becausefor the first time in modern history an Asian country had defeatedan imperialist European power. Japan, in 1905, demonstratedwhat an Asian country free of foreign domination could achieve.For all fighters against European colonialism, this turned out tobe an inspiring event; in Bengal where the Swadeshi movementhad gathered steam Japanese names became quite common inthe households. In Russia, it precipitated the Menshevik revolution which paved the way finally for the earth-shaking OctoberRevolution of 1917. Therefore, it is not surprising that the riseof Japan “filled” Nehru’s youthful mind with nationalistic ideasand the young visionary almost immediately “mused of Indianfreedom and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe”. Thishistoric moment produced a young idealist in him; an idealistwhose Asian vision would never desert him. As subsequent eventsin Nehru’s life proved, this vision grew and matured in India’sfight against British imperialism. One day, logically and historically, Nehru’s anti-imperialist consciousness would draw a lasting boundary between the colonial world and the aspirations ofa new post-colonial order. The relevance of his ideas, as thegrowing economic ties between India and China indicate, is notdiminished by the blurring of this boundary in the minds of India’scontemporary ruling classes. Nehru’s dreams were seriouslywounded twice – once in 1947, when India was partitioned andthen in 1962, due to the Sino-Indian border war. But, as this essaytries to prove, the worth of dreams cannot be measured only bytheir ability of becoming real. Dreams and ideals have alwaysbeen pursued to make the world a better place and there is noreason to believe that this should not happen today or tomorrow.

Barely a year has passed since the 50th anniversary of theBandung Conference. Understandably the event remained unsung in our globalised media. The myths of globalisation seemto have buried most discussions on imperialism even as the warin Iraq rages. Contrary to popular opinion this article claimsthat remembered or not, Nehru is still relevant. The growth ofNehru’s modernist, anti-imperialist and secular-nationalistideas spanned the 50 years between 1905 and 1955. These yearsalso comprised important decades of crucial Asian and Africanliberation movements against imperialism and colonialism.

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006

As the ruling classes of India become increasingly intimate withWashington, the principles of non-alignment and nationalsovereignty appear more as hindrances to them than the guidingprinciples of Indian nationhood. The time has, therefore, cometo revisit Nehru’s ideas and examine the possibility of fashioninga stronger and real ground for India’s national resurgence.Evaluating the salience of Nehru’s vision of Asian cooperationin the contemporary historical context is the purpose of this paper.

This paper argues that the idealism which shaped Nehru’s viewson Asian cooperation was neither an armchair nor an utopianbut historically grounded – it emerged from his submergence inconcrete political struggles and personal experience of some ofthe most traumatic events of the previous century. It was bornin the mind of a person given to intense reflection over long yearsspent in colonial Indian jails. Much has happened since 1905.A century after the Russo-Japanese war, Asia has become theengine of international growth. It is hopefully beginning to regainits centrality in history. Since the 1980s, if the media is takenseriously, a new, energetic, vibrant and hopeful Asia has emerged.According to some projections, after three more decades the twomost powerful countries after the US will be China and Indiaalthough China is far ahead of us in many things. On the otherhand, the dismantling of the USSR has added an importantdimension to these changes. Undoubtedly, Asia today comprisesa site for momentous historical changes about to occur in thenext few decades. But how much room do we have for the complacence which has entrapped our bourgeoisie. How manyof these double edged material changes will usher in progresswhich, to remember the wise words of Bertrand Russell, continues to remain a matter of ethics.

This Asia, to which everyone refers these days, also appearsvulnerable in many ways. It is not free of internal strife, imperialist domination and colonial exploitation all of which are interrelated. Millions of Asians remain poor and uneducated. Theyare exposed to environmental disasters many of which result fromthe irresponsible behaviour of third world elites. In India alonethe human development index narrates an abysmal story in starkcontrast to what its government claims. Scores of peasant suicidesgo virtually unnoticed in a mainstream media obsessed withglamour and the shenanigans of politicians. The condition ofwomen is particularly bad and rampant female feticide is making itworse. Hence, there are obvious differences between a history ofeconomic reforms and the history of Asian people in the sameperiod. And let us not forget that these differences have the capability of upsetting the neoliberal applecarts pushed around bymost third world ruling elites. The rising socio-economic violencein many parts of India is a reminder of the fact that globalisationis not working for the majority of people and that the regime isincreasingly failing to translate growth into equitable development.From here the road leads to either state authoritarianism or some sort of socialist alternative. Globalisation, as the experience of LatinAmerica shows, ultimately makes the majority prefer socialism.

A Journey into Nehru’s Thoughts

This journey into the universe of Nehru’s thought begins witha simple submission on the role of the individual in history.Assuming that in given historical contexts the individual playsan important role in history we find that there are individualswho make a big difference to history and the way we rememberit. Hence, entire epochs get named after some remarkable individuals. In contrast, the vast majority of people are born andbrought up in accordance with the historical conditions prevalentin their times. Historians know that they question these conditionsoccasionally and fleetingly. Beyond these subaltern momentsmost of them live good simple conforming lives. Often these practical people are drawn into social, cultural or religiousmovements but this happens without their necessarily becomingvisionaries. Once these movements decline people return totheir routine. This is being written not to endorse the elitist viewof history but to highlight the difference between individualpragmatism, the reigning “wise-guy scepticism”, to use AmartyaSen’s words, of our times and the pursuit of ideals in history.The world has always been divided between those who wantto interpret and change it and those who seek practicalaccommodation with it most of the time.

Visionaries are men and women fired by dreams of changing theworld substantially. Jawaharlal Nehru, the foremost representative of modern India and its synthesis with the west, belonged tothe community of dreamers. According to the dictionary meaning,an idealist is someone who places “ideals before practical considerations”. Further, idealism is a “theory that the essentialnature of reality lies in consciousness or reason”. An idealist,above all, is someone who wants to change the world and thinksthe world can be changed by reasonable action. In contradistinction to this stands, pragmatism according to which practicalconsiderations should outweigh ideals in our dealing with theworld. According to pragmatism, maximum gain must be derivedfrom a given situation without thinking too much about the future.

To be fair to both sides it can be said that while idealism carries the danger of utopianism, pragmatism generally slides into reaction.A realist may find himself between these extremes but mostrealists don’t end up changing much. On the other hand, Nehru’sprogressive idealism, which is different from communal orimperialist idealism, was underlined by the belief that conscious,rational and scientific action can improve society and elevatecivilisation. It has been said before that Nehru, quite like theIndian civilisation he symbolised, upheld the middle path, the‘madhya marg’. His views sometimes appear to be a curiousmixture of Buddhism and western notions of modernisation. Applied to modern foreign policy and statecraft this meantrecognising the historical specificity of the inter-acting parties,learning to live and progress despite differences and renouncingexpansionist wars. In a letter to the presidents of ProvincialCongress Committees dated July 4, 1954, Nehru, spelling outthe dialectical nature of his beliefs, wrote that a “foreign policymust be in keeping with the traditional background and temperof the country. It should be idealistic and realistic”.

Nehru’s formulations of what I have called progressiveidealism were based on his belief in the role of human volition in history. He extended this volition to the nation state, the modernexpression of national identity, will and nationalism. His Fabianviews implied that ideas, related to the material forces of historyas they are, have a great role to perform in the shaping of humansociety. That is why abjuring a lucrative legal practice, which(being the practical thing to do in most bourgois households)he would have inherited in due course from his famous father Motilal Nehru, he jumped into India’s freedom struggle reposingcomplete trust in the ability of Indians to overthrow colonialismand thereafter build a free country. As it turned out, Nehru’s visionwas progressive, modernist and emanated from a unique encounter of European and Asian civilisations. Due to the nature of hisupbringing, education and the colonial conditions in which hespent the formative years of his life he developed a fecund hybridintellect – a fact common to most western educated Asian intellectuals. This intellect is the source of multiple identities andhence is best suited to a pluralistic ambience. It is guided as muchby a cosmopolitan affiliation as its local roots and there is littlepoint in trying to compress it into a “solitarist” human identitycritiqued recently by Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence – TheIllusion of Destiny, Penguin, 2006). In any attempt to define andcritique Nehruvian modernity it is important to note that Nehru,

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006 unlike the representatives of the urban Indian elite these days, wasboth an admirer and critic of western history and politics. He wastruly a cosmopolitan. Therein lies the cause of his transhistoricalrelevance to India, Asia and the modern world in general.

What emerges clearly from Nehru’s ideas is an attempt toresolve a simple but vastly underestimated dilemma inherited bymany Asian countries from their colonial past. This multifariousdilemma was created by the arrival of modernity in Asian historythrough the mechanisms of colonialism. It emanated from theinability of Asia to either fully reject or completely accept westerncivilisation. Underlining the western conquest of Asia was theindustrial revolution and imperialism both produced by modernEuropean history. Since the wheels of history could not be turnedback, Asia could not completely ignore the western way in itspath of progress. The question which had to be answered in histimes, and still remains unanswered, appears elementary but hasprofound implications: How much of the western way could Asiasafely emulate?

The Western Way

The economic and philosophical consequences of colonialismhave been profound in the third world. The apparent contradictionduring decolonisation was between the legacy of colonialism anda postcolonial modernity which had to break free from this legacy.No less than the world view of most leaders who had foughtagainst imperialism and were leading their countries after thesecond world war was dependent on the ideological means toresolve this contradicton. Upon the world becoming modern, thewest could not be ignored and after gaining independence Asiancountries could no longer negotiate with the west on colonialterms. Nor could they allow “tradition” to pull back the process ofmodernisation. They had no choice but to industrialise andmodernise but this could hardly be achieved on terms entirelyfavourable to the west or by not rejecting the harmful consequences of the European experience. The contradiction betweennationalism and imperialism remained strong. Today it is alsobetween growth and sustainable development and betweendevelopment and social justice. While the sovereign nation statewas important to stave off a regression into neo-colonialism howmuch nationalism based on the nation state was healthy? Thedanger of nationalism mushrooming into regional imperialism hadto be curbed, if peace and progress were to prevail in Asia. Onthe other hand, national sovereignty had to be guaranteed againstimperialist encroachments which occurred in many forms including cold war alignments, debt and so-called free trade.

The generation of African and Asian statesmen to which Nehrubelonged paid considerable attention to these problems. However, to assume that these problems are of archival interest inthe age of globalisation would constitute a grave error. In theera of liberalisation and globalisation the Asian dilemma hasassumed a new significance. The fast growing countries of Asiamust negotiate with the west on new terms. The nature and historyof globalisation indicates that these terms have yet to be definedand implemented to the satisfaction of non-western interests.Non-alignment could be the pivot of any arrangement necessaryto renegotiate these terms if western domination of internationalrelations and trade is to be overcome. Hence, the south cannot hunt with the hounds and run with the hare. Translated in Nehruvian parlance this means upholding national sovereignty in the contextof regional cooperation and peace. According to him, and contrary to the canard popular these days, the policy of non-alignment“does not mean passivity of mind or action, lack of faith orconviction”. The policy was based on the premise, “that eachcountry has not only the right to freedom, but also to decide itsown policy and way of life”. Once a country’s “way of life” is threatened by either political alignment or intervention in the garbof trade, freedom or socialism, etc, many reactions in that countryarise. Some of these reactions, like fundamentalism, terrorism or communal violence, for instance, divert popular attention fromreal issues and confound the understanding of historical causesand effects in general. In the globalising framework of international intercourse provided by Nehru, greater interaction between countries would be more important than integration – there is no one solution to different problems and there is no one culturesuited to all countries. This is the antithesis of what his myopicsuccessors are imposing on India in the garb of economic reforms.

Nehru’s paradigm tries to resolve the contradiction betweenAsian tradition and western modernity by synthesising certainkey elements of enlightenment and industrial modernity with thelong cherished Asian practices of peaceful co-existence, culturalpluralism and political gradualism in a historical continuum. Histhought on the subject was informed firstly by the will of thecolonial subjects in Asia. This was expressed in the popular massmovements against imperialism and colonialism all over Asia.This widespread anti-imperialist feeling logically implied thatfraternal anti-colonial fronts would lead to friendly postcolonialties between independent countries. Since they were united bytheir past their salvation too lay in friendship. Secondly, itemanated from the experience of the horrors of total war producedby imperialist and inter-imperialist rivalry in the first half of the20th century. The rejection of expansionist wars was combinedwith an emphasis on the welfare state, peace, treaty obligations,disarmament and the policy of non-alignment in Nehru’s schemeof things. Thirdly, his views were influenced by the organisationalnature of the Indian mass movement against British rule althoughhis differences with Gandhi on matters of scientific progress andindustrialisation remained strong. All this underscored the philosophical and methodological importance of secularism, nonviolence, persuasion, discussion, consensus and democracy in theNehruvian discourse. These values, Indira Gandhi onwards, were gradually jettisoned by the Indian politicians in favour of electoralopportunism and political cynicism.

On Asian Fraternity

According to Nehru a fraternity of Asian countries was anecessary condition for the resolution of Asia’s historical problems caused primarily by imperialism and colonialism. For if Asiawere to be at war with itself or at the mercy of great powers,the doors to imperialism would open once again. Although Nehruwas an Asian leader his view of Asian cooperation was part of alarger vision of Afro-Asian and finally international cooperation.Deeply shaken by the enormously destructive wars of the 20thcentury caused, as they were, by the combination of capitalism,nationalism and imperialism, Nehru ultimately emerged as a criticof war, atomic weapons and the cold war which threatened thevery existence of humanity during the 1950s and 1960s. Althoughat heart he was an internationalist and, like Rabindranth Tagore,a believer in universal humanism he was nonetheless reconciled to the idea that the modern world would remain a communityof sovereign nation states for a long time to come. In their rushto integrate with the world economy, knock down nationalboundaries and indulge in nuclear double standards the Indianruling elite should not forget Nehru’s words on this subject:

The first thing to remember is that, while the world is inevitably

developing common ways of action and thinking – because this has

become essential – inevitably also, there are going to be differences

which we must recognise and allow full play, without trying to

impose our will on others in order to obliterate those differences.

Individual differences had to be tolerated in the interest of community health. If these differences declined naturally it was

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006

one thing but countries had no right “to think that it is their dutyto make others like themselves”. These views were not unique.During Nehru’s years they were also expressed by democratslike John F Kennedy according to whom there could not be anAmerican solution to different countries’ problems. The relevance of these views, as foreign intervention in Vietnam,Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, has not diminished withthe passage of time. History often shows that the unfashionableis neither irrelevant nor necessarily unworthy of emulation.

Nehru in the Politico-Historical Context

To a restless dreamer like Nehru changing human consciousnessand developing reason and scientific temper were simultaneouslynecessary for national and international growth and regionalcooperation. Nehru’s critics, both on the right and left of India’spolitical spectrum, make the mistake of placing him outside hispolitico-historical context. The historian Ramchandra Guha onceremarked in a piece on Nehru in the EPW that critics often hold him wrongly responsible for the sins of his followers. While thereis merit in the argument that Nehru took the discourse of modernity,specially in the matters of large projects such as dams andindustrial plants, a little too seriously he certainly does not deservethe epithets reserved for him in Indian drawing rooms. But is thereany doubt that the educational institutions set up by his regimehave paid off in the long run? In these neoconservative times ithas become fashionable not only to run down Nehru, but even holdhim responsible for nearly everything which was wrong with Indiabefore liberalisation and globalisation. All said and done, his contribution to the making of modern India should be critically understood. It is a well known fact that many Asian and African countriescontinue to look upon India as an example of working parliamentary democracy and economic gradualism. From personalexperience I know that for much of pluralistic south Asia, Indiaremains a source of inspiration albeit the Indian elite’s fascinationwith the west is frowned upon. India is seen by many as a microcosm of Asia. If India becomes a global economic power in future,Indians will ultimately thank the middle of the road stabilityprovided to its polity by the national consensus forged by Nehrusoon after Indian independence. It goes without saying that astrong, stable and independent India implies a well knit Asia.

The late J N Dixit, in an appraisal of Nehru’s contribution toIndian foreign policy in 1992, unequivocally stated that Nehru’sidealism was not naïve but based on concrete historical conditions. In the postcolonial period Nehru realised that the worldwas increasingly becoming multipolar and polycultural. Hisvision of international cooperation, and “peaceful competition”was predicated upon this realisation and was in tune with majordevelopments in the world history. Hence to comprehend hisvision of Asian cooperation, it is important to recollect his viewson history – a subject deeply examined and loved by Nehru.Pertinent in this context is the history of the 20th century whichproduced, and was in turn guided by, statesmen like him.Vietnam, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and the gathering cloudsover Iran are milestones of a postcolonial history which is rarelyfree of imperialism. Since anti-imperialism was a cornerstone ofNehru’s vision of international relations, his views retain a contemporary resonance in the context of postcolonial imperialismand neocolonialism which often enters the third world throughthe backdoor decked up in globalisation. This is not to say that hisview must become a dogma for us or that we should reject thepossibilities evident in trade – an outcome he would have certainlydisliked – but only to assert the lasting salience of his perspectiveand thereby remain alert to the dangers posed by globalisationto India’s regional specificities, cultural diversity and nationalsovereignty.

In Nehru’s historical perspective Indian, and by implicationAsian, history was divided into the pre-colonial, colonial andpostcolonial periods. To begin with, in his holistic scheme ofhistory Asia appeared as a deeply interconnected region with subregional variations. The interconnected and cosmopolitanevolution of Asia from the prehistoric to modern period proceeded along the lines of migrations, culture, linguistic andreligious influences, trade and the rise and fall of kingdoms andempires. Although conflict and change were very much a partof Asian history, they were subdued in comparison with forceswhich encouraged coexistence, harmony and cultural continuities.This becomes clear in the way Nehru dealt with Asia’s militaryhistory and the various military invasions of India from the northwestern regions. According to him the military phenomena,marked by periodic cross Asian invasions, were mere ripples onthe surface of the Asian civilisation. These were temporaryphenomena which ultimately gave way to socio-cultural adjustments and eventually many regions of Asia developed a syncreticculture. In the contemporary language employed by Amartya Sen,this means a culture based upon a generally peaceful coexistenceof diverse differences and multiple identities.

In the Asia of Nehru’s historiography people had learnt howto thrive without letting these differences come in their way. Theirculture was secure yet not closed to external influences. In fact,a civilisational synthesis characterised the cultural evolution ofAsia. The atmosphere pervading the past of this continent wascharacterised by political conflict between elites amidst generalsocio-cultural accomodation and peace. Religious conflict wasknown and resolved but religious wars, like those which occurredin European history, were almost unknown. The persecutionof minorities and genocides resulting from racism and ultranationalism, as in some European countries, was simply not theAsian way. Till the rise of communalism in the colonial periodIndia neither had its Jews nor a two-nation theory. In contrast,persecuted minorities elsewhere often sought and found a homein India. Nehru’s Asia was shaped by Hinduism, Buddhism andIslam and many other sects and religions since the ancient times.It had also created a great deal of space for Christianity.

The fluid history of this continent was interrupted and distortedby the advent of modern imperialism and colonialism whichresulted from the development of capitalism and an industrialrevolution in Europe. According to Nehru the villain in Asianhistory was not a particular religion, racial group or Asian culturaltrait but the insufficient growth of scientific temper and Asianpolitical consciousness which in the first place made Asia vulnerable to imperialist conquest and colonial exploitation. Hence,logically following this, industrialisation, modernisation, unityand political cohesion would prove to be Asia’s strengths infuture. The alternative to this, as Nehru’s generation understoodrather well, would be a repetition of history because decolonisationwas only a check on imperialism not a guarantee against it.

Ambience of Peaceful Coexistence

In the past, like the present,Asian countries were closely relatedto each other by land and sea routes. Long before the Europeans“discovered” the sea route to India the Arabs, Chinese, Persians, Indians and Mongols had converted the land mass of Asia andthe Indian Ocean region into a tolerant cosmopolitan tradeoriented region. In the Nehruvian paradigm an ambience ofpeaceful coexistence is noticeable in ancient and medieval Asia.However, the picture is not idyllic. Violence was not a strangerto the region and its complex stratified society but the systematicuse of violence in commercial and imperialist interest engenderedby European powers later was not the norm. Hence, if Asiancountries stressed regional cooperation in the contemporary period,

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006 they were only reiterating a historical fact in changed circumstances. There was no harm in locating useful traditions in historyand reinventing them to serve the present.

The pre-colonial period of Asian history lasted till the Europeans colonised different Asian regions. The epoch of imperialism and colonialism which began in the 18th century was onein which many Asian people were enslaved by imperialism andtheir countries were exploited ruthlessly by the colonial powers.Their wealth was drained away and their civilisation distorted.The colonial interlude in Asian history was marked by unprecedented violence, economic destruction, social exploitationand cultural oppression of the Asian societies which came underimperialist rule and influence. However, the colonial period alsoproduced the historical conditions for the rise of modern Asiannations. The impact of western civilisation, spread of moderneducation, ideas of modernity, industrialism and technology andfinally the sharpening of the colonial contradictions producedan Asian middle class and the kernels of modern Asian nation states. On the other hand, due to the class contradictions producedand sharpened by capitalism, the socialist alternative was conceived by the leftist critics of capitalism in Europe. Colonialismalso gave rise to communalism and official policy promoted itas a counterpoise against nationalism. The greatest inspiringexample of socialism would be the Bolshevik revolution and thesubsequent transformation of Tsarist Russia into the USSR.Hence, when Nehru was still a reasonably young man in the1920s, three models of modern nationhood were already inexistence laying down the future of international relations andshaping his views on regional cooperation.

Modern Nationhood Models

The first model was presented by the capitalist nation statewhich had evolved in some countries of Europe. Many of thesenation states like Britain, France and Holland grew into imperialist powers. The extreme form of European nationalism, fascismand nazism, emerged in the imperialist latecomers. Both theseideologies exemplified the horrors of racism and extremistnationalism while imperialism, which Japan began to emulatefrom the early 1930s, condemned the vast majority of humansto subservience. Nehru categorically rejected these models. Thesecond model was emerging in the colonies where new nationstates were being articulated by the anti-colonial movements.Anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, emphasis on welfare, education, modernisation, development and sympathy with fraternalmovements was integral to the formation of nationalism in theAsian and African colonies. As far as imperialism, socialism,fascism and Nazism were produced by modernity, Asian nationalism had important lessons to learn from all of them. Fascismand Nazism were forms of extreme nationalism produced by thecrisis of industrial capitalism and were rejected by all secularnationalists. However, we must not fail to notice, the secularnationalism which evolved in the colonies was largely bourgeoisbased and could develop hegemony over the masses in thepostcolonial period only with the aid of a successful welfare state.Nehru took this for granted given the popularity of the IndianNational Congress and the planning process.

The third model was presented by the rise of socialism – buteven here ambiguities remained. The socialist experiment wasunique to history. Between the two world wars, and in comparisonwith the capitalist countries, the USSR demonstrated how acountry could industrialise in a period of crisis and depression.The impact of the USSR on Nehruvian socialism should not beunderestimated but we must never lose sight of the fact that whiledrawing important lessons from the Soviet experiment, more soin the inter-war period, Nehru remained critical of communist methods. While he remained critical of totalitarian communist practices, the political will, social energy, industrial, educationaland scientific acievements of the USSR nevertheless impressedand inspired him. Since Soviet industrialisation and modernisationwere taking place outside the capitalist world, the USSR presented an alluring model to the ex-colonial countries. A backwardcountry like India had a lot to learn from the USSR wheremodernisation was rapidly progressing in relatively backwardconditions but it could hardly emulate what Moscow was tryingto achieve. Even as the search for paradigms continued theelement of doubt remained because Nehru’s thought washistorical enough not to fall prey to a naïve theorising which isso popular these days.

There was, in his view and contrary to what we are witnessingtoday, no solitary approach suitable to all countries. En routeto the Soviet Union, writing to the chief ministers of Indian statesin flight from Bombay to Cairo on June 5, 1955, he admittedthat despite the limitations of communism “the economic appeal[of USSR] remained”. However, he wondered whether the “neweconomic approach, shorn of its violence and coercion andsuppression of individual liberty, could be helpful in solving ourproblems or the world’s problems. The older methods, evolvedby the capitalist world, had failed and offered no solution. Indeed,they had led to great wars and they themselves, whatever theirprotestations, were based on violence and suppression of countries and people, and lack of integrity and moral approach.” Thisambivalence, which has given way to the undemocratic certainties of our times, left ample room for departures both fromMoscow and Washington and eventually become the basis ofthe non-alignment movement.

The anti-colonial struggles of the Asian peoples had to succeedfor the new Asian nation states to be free and independent andonly then would a new era in Asian cooperation begin. It wasthis need of all people and countries labouring against imperialismthat led to the left-initiated formation of organisations such asthe International League against Imperialism, which held theCongress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels. Nehruaddressed this congress in February 1927 before visiting Moscowfor the first time later that year. His ideas on cooperation betweenex-colonial countries were forming into a flexible perspectivein the inter-war years. At the Brussels Congress he made it clearthat “the struggle for freedom was a common one against thething that was imperialism, ...and, where possible, joint actionwas desirable”. Further, hinting at the danger which excessivenationalism posed to freedom, he paraphrased Gandhi by sayingthat the nationalism of the Indian National Congress was “basedon the most intense internationalism”. Two years later his ideaof Asian cooperation was crossing the limits of nationalism. InDecember 1929, in his presidential address to the Lahore Sessionof the Indian National Congress, he even spoke of toning downindividual sovereignty in the interest of regional or supra-regionalgroups. “Having attained her freedom” he said, “I have no doubtthat India will welcome all attempts at world cooperation andfederation and will even agree to give up part of her ownindependence to a larger group of which she is an equal member”.This was the perspective which ultimately led to the AsianRelations Conference in New Delhi in 1947, the articulation of the ‘Panchsheel’ (The five principles of peaceful coexistence)and finally the evolution of non-alignment, a phrase coined byNehru, from the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in 1955 onwards.

Despite an admirable understanding of world history andinternational relations Nehru could not have possibly foreseenthe demise of the USSR. Nor could he have developed a morecomprehensive post-modernist critique of modernity to whichwe have become accustomed today. Although never enamouredof communist methods, socialism excited him and the palpable

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006

vitality in the young Soviet Union impressed him greatly. Thesimplicity of the Bolshevik leaders and their earnest attempts toindustrialise a backward feudal country left a lasting impressionon the young nation builder. Socialism, as far as the radicals ofthe 1920s could see, could help liberate the Asian people fromthe yoke of imperialism. Unlike exploitative capitalism it wasviewed as a window of opportunity offered by history to thebackward regions of the world specially in the 1920s and 1930s.In the event Soviet communism collapsed under the weight ofits own contradictions, but this hardly signalled the victory ofcapitalism. Contemporary history shows that capitalism has failedto solve the numerous problems besetting humanity at the beginning of the 21st century. Indeed globalisation, the new ‘avatar’of international finance capital, has already created intractableproblems in most countries. It excludes neither war nor poverty.In the 1950s the world was bipolar but now it is increasinglybecoming multipolar thus ironically highlighting the importanceof the Nehruvian vision once again. Trends indicate that in thelong run this multipolarity will emerge in the context of aprotracted decline of the US, the resilience of anti-westernterrorism, growth of left wing movements in many parts of theworld and the rise of China. Only time will tell whether apolicy of alignment with Washington or detachment from imperialism, the bedrock of Nehruvian foreign policy, will help Indiain future.

For the present we cannot think of an Asian federation beingpredicated upon anything but the principle of equality and mutualbenefit governing the relations between various Asian countries

– an integral part of the Nehruvian vision. The inter-countryparity, which the imperialist denies to begin with, is the sine quanon of negotiations. The alternative to this has already undermined Asian solidarity, economic development, regional balanceand ultimately compromised peace. As long as regional or globalimperialism remains, threatening regional balance, destroyingnational economies and creating perpetual warlike conditions bytheir imperatives, Nehru’s anti-imperialist vision of Asian cooperation will remain relevant. A large part of Nehru’s dreamwas conceived with the lofty aim of saving the ex-colonialcountries from further visitations of the most baleful aspects ofwestern history. He told the west that Asia, having had enoughof imperialist impositions and war in the colonial part of itshistory, desired nothing from the world but respite from war anda relationship conducive to its progress. Without peace andequality, as the late Edward Said often observed in the contextof the middle-east “peace process”, there cannot be developmentand without popular development there can be no real progress.

Concluding Remarks

This paper is neither a comprehensive review of Nehru’sposition on most political and diplomatic matters nor an unqualified defence of the Nehruvian thought. It is based on a historian’scontention that despite various limitations, the framework offoreign relations and Asian cooperation developed by Nehruretains a certain relevance today in the same way as the statedoes in certain contexts reviewed by the anarchist critic NoamChomsky. Contemporary India’s attitude towards Asian countries cannot be oblivious to an Asian destiny being planned bythe western imperialists led by the neoconservative elements whorule the US today. It is only reasonable to suppose that ifimperialism desires an ideal world in which only imperialistinterests matter then the forces which seek independence fromsuch an order must have their own counter-ideals.

Countries on the imperialist radar screens cannot afford to driftanchorless, a scenario preferred by imperialism for various reasonssince the 19th century. India, where human rights and democracy are not even guaranteed to the majority, can hardly behaveirresponsibly towards its immediate neighbours and other Asiancountries in the vain hope that it has Washington’s certificateto do so. Nor should globalisation be allowed to create an illusionthat the west is willing to treat the third world as an equal. Agrave error has already been committed by the UPA governmentin respect of Iran. Earlier the NDA government would have sentthe Indian army to Iraq but for rising public criticism of theAmerican occupation and plunder of that country. Much beforethat India had refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in appropriate terms. Premier Nehru would have disapproved of such diplomatic opportunism on grounds which areas important today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. As thewar clouds gather over the Persian Gulf and the western powersplan to send Iran back to the stone age the time for some serioussoul searching has come for the Indian ruling elite. They couldbegin by asking whether there is a “pragmatic” alternative to theabandonment of vison. They must also look at history and wonderif any country has ever become a great power with the assistanceof an imperialist. In sum, and as international opportunism overIraq has shown, a divorce from principles and common senseonly leads to national and regional disaster. If New Delhi assumesan ostrich like posture in becoming an agency of western imperialism, history might repeat itself because, like individuals,countries which surrender their freedom for complacence neitherremain free nor prosperous for very long. And to begin with,India is neither prosperous nor can it risk regional isolation.Therefore, it is only reasonable that India’s approach to Asia mustbe underlined by the ten principles of Bandung which retain theirrelevance despite our being informed that the world has becomeflat in the age of globalisation. Furthermore, the five principlesof non-alignment Panchsheel have, unfortunately for Nehrubashers, regained their relevance to Asian cooperation despitethe end of the USSR and the cold war. The enormous natural and national resources of Asian countries like oil, mineral and forest wealth have made them vulnerable to imperialist exploitation once again in history and this highlights the salience ofanti-imperialism mentioned in this paper. Above all, it is in theinterest of all Asian countries to oppose the monopoly overthe oil reserves of Iraq and Iran which the western powers sodesperately seek and express solidarity with the victimisedpeople of these countries.




[I am indebted to Anu for drawing my attention to Dani Rodrik’s paper mentioned in the beginning.]

1 A seminar on Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas and vision was organised by the Indian Embassy, ICCR and the Kazakhstan Government in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a hundred years after the resounding Japanese naval victory over Russia in 1905 and 50 years after Nehru’s long official visit to the USSR in 1955. This paper is a greatly revised version of the one presented by the author at that seminar (June 17, 2005).

2 We are reminded by the apologists of US policies that Japan was helped by Washington and prospered under the US nuclear umbrella during the cold war. Similar ideas are floating in the Indian media and government circles with respect to the growing Indo-US economic and nuclear cooperation in the context of China having emerged as the greatest threat to US hegemony in Asia. Will India become an effective counter to China in alliance with America and Japan or will it ultimately go the Latin American way? Will it balance the power equation in Asia to check the growing hegemony of China? Or will India’s growing tilt towards the US and indulgence of nuclear double standards force some of its neighbours like Pakistan and China to forge a strategic alliance against it? This paper tries to understand the Nehruvian vision of Asian solidarity in response to these questions.

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006

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