At first blush the inaugural prime minister of India seems to have little in common with the latest occupant of the Seven Race Course Road. Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, was a true cosmopolitan, as comfortable chatting up ladies in the British high society as he was debating the intricacies of foreign policy among Indian parliamentarians. Unlike the man in saffron from Gujarat, the idea of rousing masses by stoking their religious sentiments would have been anathema to Nehru.
The two men, then, seem as different as chalk and cheese. But dig a little deep and they also have important similarities. Neither Nehru nor Modi are known for their modesty. In a letter dating 1977 Nehru writes: “The first thing you must remember is that I have a knack of imposing on people… and I produce in their minds exaggerated notions about myself.” So highly did Nehru rate his persuasive skills that he was for the same reason “respected not only in India but also abroad.”
Like Nehru, Modi also banks on his ability to mesmerize big crowds. This is one reason for his electoral success, both in his native Gujarat as well as later on the national stage. In a naked show of vanity, Modi earlier this year welcomed Barack Obama to New Delhi in a black pinstripe suit embroidered with his own name. Separately, while Nehru posthumously popularized the Nehru jacket around the world, Modi may also claim patent on his very-own short-sleeve cotton kurta.
There are more substantive similarities between the two men as well. Both Nehru and Modi concentrated powers at the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, especially on matters of foreign policy. Drunk on their exalted sense of self-importance, neither learned to trust other cabinet members or top bureaucrats with important stuff. Both sought to project a formidable personal image abroad. In fact, these two jet-setting prime ministers seemed more at home on the road rather than in power corridors of New Delhi.
There is congruence in their neighborhood policy, too. Nehru was the first prime minister to explicitly state that Nepal falls under the Indian sphere of influence. It could not be otherwise. “From time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with magnificent frontiers,” he said in a speech before the Indian parliament in 1950. “We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated, because it is also the principal barrier to India.”
That was not all. “As much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal,” Nehru continued, “we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security.” Nehru was so anxious because China had recently annexed Tibet. He feared Nepal could be the next Chinese target. For their part the Chinese, their military superiority clearly proven in the 1962 war with India, haven’t historically been near as bothered about Indian calisthenics in the subcontinent.
As international security expert David M. Malone points out in his book Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy: “China is a more neuralgic subject in Indian national debates than India is in China.” China, he says, does not appear to feel threatened in any serious way by India while India at times displays tremendous insecurity in the face of Chinese economic success and military expansion.
The old fears of the dragon encroaching on the traditional Indian sphere metastasized into full-blown panic attacks after 1962. Its latest manifestation is Modi government’s economic blockade of Nepal.
The perception in New Delhi in the lead up to September 20th—the day Nepal promulgated its constitution—was that while Chinese inputs were being accommodated in the new constitution those offered by India were blithely brushed aside. So were India’s many requests to retain Hinduism as state religion. And so the blockade to teach the recalcitrant Kathmandu elite a harsh lesson in geopolitics.
But had Nehru been in Modi’s place would he have acted different?
The two previous Indian blockades (in 1969 and 1989) were both imposed well after Nehru’s death in 1964. So it’s difficult to know for sure. But he probably would have acted more or less as Modi has. Nehru, despite his obvious preference for dialogue to solve international disputes, was not completely against the use of more coercive tactics. As Andrew Bingham Kennedy persuasively argues his book the International Ambitions of Nehru and Mao, Nehru could be cunning.
“Sometimes more [than persuasion] is necessary,” Kennedy quotes Nehru from 1942. “That something is pressure or some kind of coercion, and the bringing about of circumstances which make it worthwhile for the vested interests to accept chance than to suffer greater loss in an attempt to avoid it.” Nehru was not averse, writes Kennedy, to the application of coercion in diplomacy, especially if applied on a country that was clearly weaker than India militarily.
Nehru, again, put much store on his persuasive skills to keep his foreign friends in good humor. He was apparently quite good at it. Nehru and BP Koirala famously got along, with Koirala highly grateful for Nehru’s “great and reliable moral support” during his imprisonment by King Mahendra. Before the ‘great betrayal’ of 1962 that sent him to an early grave, Nehru sincerely believed he had Mao’s number, too.
But the original proponent of the ‘sphere of influence’ hypothesis wouldn’t have many qualms about employing coercion on a weak state like Nepal, as Kennedy indicates. As with Nehru, so with Modi.
Geography entails India will always be the dominant power in Nepal. But Indian policymakers will also do well to realize that foreign policy of a 21st-century global power cannot be guided by Cold War era Nehruvian mindset.
(This article was originally published in Republica Daily on Dec 18, 2015. The writer can be reached at @biswasktm)