Nehru, the realist

Nehru’s adoption of tactics, especially with respect to his approach in international relations was decided by their usefulness.

“Whatever policy you may lay down, the art of conducting foreign affairs of a country lies in finding out what is most advantageous to the country. We may talk about international goodwill and mean what we say. But in the ultimate analysis, a government functions for the good of the country it governs and no government dare do anything, which in the short or long run is manifestly to the disadvantage of that country.” – Nehru in the Constituent Assembly, December 1947.


There has been a popular view of Nehru’s foreign policy being idealistic and shorn of realist values. This is best exemplified in Manu Bhagwan’s The Peacemakers where the author has quoted extensively from speeches to show that Nehru wanted to work towards One World – an international federal structure under United Nations where nations could resolve issues peacefully. Preaching non-violence in the United Nations won him a lot of applause. It seemed like a quixotic mission that ended tragically with the ‘62 war. Nehru’s actions that don’t comply with the idealism are explained away as exceptions or compromises under compulsion.

On the other hand, Srinath Raghavan takes a contrary view of the strategic history of the Nehru years in his book War and Peace in Modern India. He has taken a view of events, as they would have unfolded for Nehru rather than take the benefit of hindsight to show the strategic choices available to him at that point in history. It makes a compelling case of how Nehru followed pragmatic, realistic policies and also reveals his fallibility.

This view creates a more consistent picture with Nehru’s actions on the domestic front. A liberal idealist would have been okay with a few princely states becoming independent but Nehru was categorical in not giving that option to anyone. His role in the unification of princely states is often over-shadowed by the sterling work done by Sardar Patel on that front.

Kissinger also supports this view in his latest book World Order. He also explains the stance of non-alignment that India took in foreign affairs under Nehru as an effective realist strategy to avoid entanglement in the Cold War power play. He compares it to how USA avoided participating in European power play till the First World War. This makes sense. India hardly had the means to be effective and would have become a pawn in the game (like Pakistan eventually did). A superior moralistic posture in foreign policy gave the perfect cover to execute this strategy.

As a fledgling new country whose primary objective was to remain whole and rebuild a broken economy, an untangled non-alignment was the most pragmatic course of action. In fact, in the 50s and 60s, India managed to be one of the biggest aid recipients from both US and USSR at the height of cold war. In Nehru’s own words in 1947 – “We propose to avoid entanglement in any blocs or groups of Powers realizing that only thus can we serve not only the cause of India but of world peace … Every nation places its own interests first in developing foreign policy. Fortunately India’s interests coincide with a peaceful foreign policy and cooperation with all progressive nations.”

Combining a realist strategy with a moralistic posture was not without reputational risks. Nehru’s decision to annex Goa (after diplomatic efforts failed) is a direct example of that. It led to this famous statement by Kennedy – “You spend the last fifteen years preaching morality to us, and then you go ahead and act the way any normal country would behave… People are saying, the preacher has been caught coming out of the brothel.” This is similar to United State’s own foreign policy though, which is often criticized as being hypocritical since it couches its national interest with moralistic arguments of liberal values.

Did Nehru really believe in the ideals of one world and non-violence in international affairs? His approach towards non-violence in the freedom struggle itself gives a clue – he believed it was the most effective course to achieve independence, not because of its moral superiority (as Gandhi believed) but practical worth. A violent struggle against the British Empire would have yielded inferior results compared to the course Gandhi chose. His approach in international relations was similar; the adoption of tactics was decided by their usefulness.

The narrative on Nehru’s foreign policy has mostly portrayed him like a caricature – either it attempted to deify him in the early years as being a visionary ahead of his times or recently he has been labeled as an idealist who did not understand primacy of national interest above all ideals in international affairs. However, events post independence bear him out as a realist who pursued national interest, but a fallible one and that seems to align with the fact that we did have a human rather than a deity as India’s first Prime Minister.

Photo: U.S. Embassy New Delhi