M.L. Sondhi

Indian Express, October 22, 1995

The Indian approach to international relations has been dominated by the Nehru model. Hard-line followers of this model are today prisoners of a discourse which has lost its critical edge to deal with the long-term problems confronting the nation. Their worn out arguments secrete a historical sluggishness and lethargy. All they offer is the evocation of a set of symbols enveloped in an atmosphere of sentimentalism about non-alignment. This is not the way a renaissance might occur which will help India to vitalize its contact with the real world. An alternative model to help us cope with the competitive arena can be found in the strength of the Subhasist vision.

Lessons are yet to be drawn from our foreign policy failures. From the inability to establish stable peace with Pakistan to the continuing incoherence of Indian policy towards both China and the United States, the root cause of disasters in Indian foreign policy has been an adherence to political messianism. Needed instead is a fresh analysis of what is actually happening in the world.

There were serious constraints under which Netaji operated his foreign policy. But he never relied on erratic short-term manoeuvres. As India's "first Foreign Minister," he did not pursue any utopian goals, and he was at all times particularly careful that his sources of information about antagonists or allies should not be vulnerable to distorting influences. There were many occasions when the dice was loaded against him in negotiations, but never was he tempted to engage in illusory acts having only symbolic worth. Eschewing sanctimonious moralising, he kept his moorings in the real world and understood what it meant to engage in the negotiating process with single-minded intensity.

At this time of political transition, there are five areas in the agenda of international affairs, where India's policy makers could profit from a study of Netaji's model of diplomacy.

First, the interest of Netaji as a participant in the freedom struggle led him to the study of the way in which the structure of the existing world order would change. To understand existing power configurations, he developed his own perspective on 'national interest' which he always kept before his mind's eye when he had to evaluate different strategies. If we take his negotiations with countries as different as Germany, Italy, Japan, Burma or the Philippines, as well as his efforts to open up a dialogue with China, we find he focussed attention on India's interest vis-a-vis the other nations. He made a very important broadcast asking the Chinese to examine their foreign policy objectives in the War. As leader of a government-in-exile, expediency was an essential ingredient of his foreign policy, but this did not in any way diminish the salience of his efforts to underline the vitality of the Indian conception of national interest.

Second, Netaji was ahead of his times in his possession of an advanced and sophisticated understanding of the role of information in international affairs. He wanted India to respond to the great changes which were coming in the world situation not by knee-jerk reactions or through quick-fixes as was unfortunately the case with many of his contemporaries. His activities as a Congress activist, as a Congress dissident and as a decision-maker exercising governmental power, all show him to be well aware of "information" as a crucial asset in developing policies truly in line with the future. His visits to Europe in 1933, 1934, 1935 and later in 1937 and 1938 gave him an awareness of the way in which informational networks could be created to erode the cohesiveness of the imperialist order, and he also identified the main characteristics of the power transition which the inevitable decline of the British Empire would produce. He concentrated on developing the bargaining advantages for India in the context of both peaceful and violence-prone developments. He developed the content of foreign policy thinking not through ideological concepts but by access to relevant data bases.

Third, as head of a government-in-exile, he gained power and legitimacy through a policy-making process in which the cost-benefit calculus was never sacrificed for prestige or personal ambition. From fellow Indians he called for self-sacrifice and demanded extraordinary virtues. But in determination of policies which could only be fulfilled through interaction with other states, e.g. Japan, he sought for a firmer base for policy by stressing common strategic interest which would survive the swings of political moods. The relevant example is his negotiations with the Japanese Prime Minister Tojo, from whom he obtained a solemn statement endorsing Indian freedom, while excluding any scope for possible control or manipulation by Japan. Netaji's presence in the Japanese Parliament (the Diet) was the culmination of a carefully crafted process of mobilisation and management of political resources. Besides, through an equality of level of decision-making, he refused to accept Japan's hegemony.

Fourth, his problem-solving approach was not geared to small trade-offs as seems to have become the case with present day Indian decision-makers who always seem to come to some arrangement to buy a little peace. Netaji calls to mind another great patriot Charles De Gaulle of France who epitomized his attitude in the following words: "France is never her true self except when she is engaged in a great enterprise." There is much misunderstanding about Netaji's support to the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Scheme, but his critics miss something of great significance. He was not a passive supporter of Japanese imperial schemes, he had his own vision of free India's economic potential, and saw the partnership between India and Japan as a first step in the metamorphosis from exclusive national economic concern to participation in an expanding regional and global economic system which would replace the inherited imperialist colonial order. This marked his participation in the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo in the first week of November 1943. And nothing he said at the international forum was repugnant to India's ethos as a crusader for human freedom.

Fifth, the concept of reciprocity was basic to his framework for conducting international relations. He found this self-evident, as the only way to prevent the politics of dominance and dependence. In his direct contacts with foreign leaders he developed a sense of collegiality, although he could not wish way their privileged status. Dr. Girija K. Mookerjee points out that "Subhas, nevertheless, met some of the shrewdest professional diplomats on their own grounds and came out with flying colours".

He was so confident about the long term structural trends of world politics that he did not feel vulnerable to the turns and swings of British imperial politics as did some of the other Indian nationalist leaders who passively accepted the client status of India in their overall mentality even as they struggled to throw off the foreign yoke.

In the 1990s, the structure of global politics and economics is changing again and there are immense difficulties in the way of defining India's role as a major player in the international arena. A close study of Netaji's diplomacy opens up a hopeful discourse for contributing to a better future for India, Asia and the world.
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