Like a pesky ghost that won't be exorcized, Jawaharlal Nehru's nonalignment policy continues to hover over India's foreign relations. Later this month, New Delhi will host its first BRICS summit, an oddball gathering of authoritarian and democratic nations united only by regional heft and implicit opposition to the U.S.-led international order. Just last week, a 70-member trade delegation headed to Tehran to explore fresh opportunities for Indian companies in the Islamic republic, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai having previously declared that the recent, tougher round of EU and U.S. sanctions on Iran were inapplicable to India. Instead of using an ongoing two-year term (2011 to 2013) on the U.N. Security Council to underscore its democratic credentials, India has mostly sided with the Russians and the Chinese in their battles on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and the late Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Does this really sound like the foreign policy of America's new strategic partner, courted by three successive U.S. presidents? Might this relationship -- hailed by Barack Obama as "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century" -- be long on potential and short on actually fulfilling it?
India's behavior, deeply disappointing to those in the United States who have championed closer ties between the world's largest and most important democracies, reflects an ongoing battle in New Delhi for the soul of Indian foreign policy. On one side you have those for whom a go-it-alone attitude is an end in itself. "Strategic autonomy has been the defining value and continuous goal of India's international policy ever since its inception as a Republic," declares "Nonalignment 2.0," a new report by eight of the country's leading public intellectuals and foreign policy specialists. Nonalignment 1.0, of course, was India's Cold War policy of maintaining equidistance between Moscow and Washington, though in practice it leaned toward the Soviet Union.
Arrayed against this view are those who say nonalignment has outlived its purpose, and seek to strengthen mutually beneficial ties with the West. Former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra declared it "impossible" for India to remain nonaligned between the United States and China. According to K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to the United States and China, "Reviving that concept is all too likely to drive our people back to something that is not only long outdated but -- and this is its dangerous legacy -- which we still fail to recognize as having done us more harm than good."
Who wins this debate has profound consequences for India, Asia, and the world. If India slips back into measuring its independence by its ability to thwart Washington, it risks fatally undermining the argument it made while lobbying for the 2008 civilian nuclear deal -- that the rise of a large, pluralistic, English-speaking democracy in Asia is in the West's interest. Why squander valuable diplomatic capital on an unreliable partner, skeptics in Washington already argue.
If, however, India learns to view foreign policy like most other countries -- in terms of national interest rather than attachment to abstract doctrine -- it will likely come to the conclusion that Washington is a natural partner, with which it shares not only close familial and educational links but also a distrust of China's rapid military build-up and Pakistan's continued dalliance with jihadism. This doesn't mean becoming an American poodle, as New Delhi elites seem to constantly fret about, but recognizing an obvious confluence of interests and values. India's most pressing goal, to modernize its promising but still backward economy, is best achieved in a stable and open international order underpinned by U.S. power. It's in India's self-interest to bolster rather than erode this order, while at the same time working to carve out a larger role for itself.
For now, though, Nehru's ghost continues to cast a shadow over India's foreign policy instincts. Supporters of Nonalignment 2.0 tend to view the United States with as much suspicion as China, despite Beijing's role in boosting Pakistan's missile and nuclear weapons program, its continued claims on Indian territory, and its military humiliation of India in a brief mountain war in 1962. They see the steady decline of U.S. power and India's rapid rise to major power status as inevitable, and conclude that the United States needs India more than India needs the United States. For India's unreconstructed Cold Warriors, America's closest friends in the region -- Japan, South Korea, and Australia -- should be pitied as U.S. lackeys rather than emulated as successful free-market democracies that have brought both security and prosperity to their people.