Special Report: Interrogating Non-Alignment 2.0


Non-alignment is back through a recent Report prepared and published by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, in February 2012. Reminiscent of a movie sequel, it is refreshed, repackaged, updated and delivered in a 2.0 form, titled “Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century”. And like most movie sequels today, it also runs on an altogether new script with only an imaginary connection to the first. Why stick to the name then? A sequel, they say, creates not a movie but a franchise and amplifies chances of success of the sequel by piggybacking it on the popularity (and legitimacy) gained from the first. Non-alignment 2.0 is thus like a sequel that boasts of a new script, but since the creators implicitly insist, by naming it so, that it be placed alongside its previous avatar, comparisons are unavoidable.

Comparisons, however, can be unjust. Prejudices can sometimes elevate past to mythological proportions, often presenting it as a phoenix that could rise from ashes. Looking from the opposite end of the spectrum, however, past can also be portrayed as the incubator of all failures of the present. In both cases, past is plucked out of its own temporality to justify or denounce the present. Evidently, attempts at understanding and comparing the past and present of Indian Foreign Policy (IFP) have swayed towards either of these extremes. We attempt here to stay away from such comparisons, despite an enormous yearning to do so.

Nevertheless, the criticisms of non-alignment that have populated post-liberalization India have been scathing, to say the least. For C. Raja Mohan, non-alignment years portended to India’s ‘wasted past’ while Harsh Pant, perhaps taking the argument to another extreme with which one could only disapprove very strongly, argues that Indian foreign policy only starts in 1991 (whatever he means by it!). In contrast, the supporters of non-alignment hark back to how non-alignment made India a relevant force in the world when materially it could claim none of that pedigree. It allowed India to explore and, some would say, exploit that middle space between the two sanitized blocs. However, for all the idealism for which Nehru is at times wrongly criticized, non-alignment was a doctrine, which could never be flattened into a policy prescription. This has agonized India’s policy makers for long so much so that the roots of policy-aversion in IFP are excavated back to Nehru. Most times, in the Nehruvian years, foreign policy was more personalized than institutionalized. Understandably, as a post-colonial country with relatively little experience of international affairs, India relied heavily on individual brilliance. And though often Nehru is projected as the sole architect of IFP, the fact is Nehru’s lieutenants like Krishna Menon, BN Rau, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, KM Pannikar, GS Bajpai, amongst others, had a much more profound impact than the chroniclers of IFP have granted them. Nevertheless, for most part of Nehru’s rule, MEA did not have a policy planning division and the economic planning division was virtually defunct. It meant that IFP stumbled from one issue to other and economic considerations were left to other ministries.

Non-alignment 2.0 partly emerges out of this constant agonizing about lack of a strategic outlook in India. Ever since, George Tanham, a RAND scholar, argued that Indians are policy averse because of their cultural disposition, the burden of proving India’s strategic mettle has weighed too heavy on the minds of the Indian strategic community. The accusations of strategic impotence become even more stinging when they are used to rupture the euphoria about India being a 21st century major power. A power without the mindset and ability to project it is a damning thought. Non-alignment 2.0 is a conscious attempt to disprove this lack.


The Report begins by quite audaciously claiming that India is a passive power, seen in benign terms by most of the world, except perhaps a few grumbling neighbours. India’s value to the world, it says, lies in its power of example. Flipped, it also means India is perceived to be a power that can do no harm even if its interests are adversely affected – something that our neighours seemingly take advantage of. The upshot is that India needs to ‘develop a repertoire of instruments’ to signal, and at times employ, in order to raise the costs of any misadventure. This preposition, to us, is fundamentally flawed.

One needs to distinguish between India being a pacifist power and India being perceived as a pacifist power. These are certainly two different things. The first is an essentialist argument to which empirical arguments about India’s non-aggressive nature would need to be counseled. It would take an extraordinarily biased analysis to completely elide the fact that India is one of the largest importers of arms, possesses one of the biggest armed forces in the world, is one of the largest spenders on arms, has fought five wars in six decades, has used military in Kashmir and Northeast with much impunity, and is one of the only few countries to possess a nuclear weapon. India is not a pacifist power, certainly not if one is to critically analyze its six and a half decades of history, and the realists and critical theorists – who generally speak from two different epistemological plains – would concur on this.

The latter implies that India’s pacifism is a matter of perception, which depends on two things: how the discourse about Indian identity is constructed and also how the other side sees India. India’s identity as a pacifist power emerges from a certain way in which the discourse about India – the idea of India, if you like – is constructed right from the time Indian national consciousness started emerging in the second half of the 19th century. In the writings of Indian nationalists like Bankim Chandra, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru, ‘India’ was projected as the pacifist ‘other’ to the war-mongering nations of the West. It was a discourse on which Indian political identity was based. To claim, ‘India is a pacifist power’ is strikingly different from asserting that the Indian identity is based on a discursive construction. The latter admits of the contingency of its own construction and allows us to explore various other ideas of India that were otherwise erased or silenced. The first is an essentialist argument, the latter only interpretative.

Second, India’s pacifism is granted more legitimacy today because India is considered benign by the West, more specifically the United States (one of the main reasons why India was granted the nuclear deal and not Pakistan). In recent times, the United States has often underlined India’s pacifist leanings but during the Cold War, no American administration thought so. Instead, they repeatedly admonished India as the belligerent side, not Pakistan, in India-Pakistan dyad. The perception by the other side thus is necessarily mediated by its own strategic needs. Evidently, American exhortations about India’s benign rise are more governed by its own strategic imperatives of finding an able ally against China.

How does this matter anyway? It does. A missionary zeal of leaving an ‘extraordinary footprint on the world’ caused by a feeling of self-righteousness not only could divorce one from reality but also make others cringe under one’s moral arrogance. Of course, one need not go the other mile and say ‘let us think of only ourselves and let the world go to dogs’ but a more humble and rooted presupposition could be a more realistic premise to begin with.


The world today is undergoing an exceptional transformation, not witnessed earlier in the history of modern international system. For the first time, ‘power’ is being distributed geographically across West to East with China, India, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Saudi Arabia strongly emerging outside of the traditional centers of power in North America and Western Europe. Given that the direction of the emerging global order is still uncertain and the power club is overpopulated, the authors of the Report suggest, India has ‘a limited window of opportunity’. The path it follows now shall determine how far it is able to leverage its position for a long time.

Noble thought! To buttress it, there is a long 309 point wish list that the authors have drawn. One could, however, very clearly find that different professional and ideological persuasions of its authors have found their way into the document depriving it of a focus and at times even advancing contradictory points. The report is ambitiously indexed with issues as wide ranging as India’s foreign policy concerns, internal security matters, questions of military modernization, international order, non-conventional security issues, knowledge and informational foundations, and even state of democracy in India finding an entry. Within a space of 70 pages, the authors have managed to sing paeans to India’s pacifism as well as claim that the Indian state is a predator in its troubled Maoist belt. They emphasize India’s commitment to open market economy but never spell out how that should integrate with ‘inclusive growth’ apart from vaguely calling for a ‘national consensus’.

At times, one senses an extremely hawkish foreign policy tone with emphasis on strengthening offensive and defensive capabilities and adopting more offensive postures vis-à-vis China (they suggest a quid pro quo on Chinese intrusions on LAC – a la Forward Policy) and Pakistan. And then, this tone suddenly mellows down to explicating how important norms are to the international order. It reminds India of its legacy of championing human rights against concerns of sovereignty, but then cautions India to ‘avoid sharp choices’ in West Asia. It counsels (strictly for strategic reasons this time!) that India should not shy away from highlighting Pakistan’s human rights violations in Baluchistan. Amidst all of this though, it is unconvincingly silent on India itself being a sitting duck on accusations of human rights violations, leave alone it talking about how India should respond to this.

On most questions, they fail to suggest anything new on rather usual issues like India’s relations with China, South Asia, West Asia, global powers and international multilateral institutions. Sample some of the suggestions made: China is ‘the most important challenge to Indian strategy’ with which ‘cooperation and competition’ should be adopted. ‘India should do more for South Asia’, ‘avoid sharp choices in West Asia’, ‘leverage its position as a derivative power in the US-India-China triad’ and keep itself plugged to multilateral international organizations. These would qualify as clichés, not recommendations.

Pakistan has been dealt in some detail and here authors suggest that we need to diversify our toolkit of responses. Apart from divorcing bilateral negotiations from terrorist attacks, a connection that has stalled any progress in India-Pakistan talks, they suggest that India should be willing to signal proportionate costs for misadventure from Pakistan’s side. For this, India would need a paradigm shift in its force projection from one of capturing territory to highlighting destructive capability.

Nevertheless, while the strategic community has already debated upon – and is still debating – the strategic import of these suggestions, the Report proposes some normative ideas that one could genuinely see as following the non-alignment legacy. The Bandung legacy was one of envisioning alternatives to the western Westphalian state system, of which sovereignty and security are two underlying themes. In a fast globalizing world, for which the best one word description would be ‘mobility’, immobile concepts such as territory and boundary are inhibitive and regressive. While capital and goods have been made sufficiently mobile, labour mobility is still a dream in the world of passport and visas. This leads to problems of migration. Here, authors suggest that we should do away with the categories of citizen and non-citizen and introduce a category of work permits that specifies rights and duties of migrants more clearly. While such as a suggestion has been made by labour organizations and various social movements, a mainstream document endorsing it is happy news.

Finally, from a theoretical vantage point, Non-Alignment 2.0 seems like stuck at a cross section of realists, liberals and constructivists from where it does not know which way to go.

Author Note
*Deba R Mohanty is Vice President at SSPC, New Delhi, and Vineet Thakur is a Ph. D scholar in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.