The Future of Indian Foreign Policy after Indira Gandhi

M.L. Sondhi

Asia Pacific Community, No. 28, 1985

In examining the scope and nature of possible changes in Indian foreign policy after Indira Gandhi, it is essential to determine the capacity of her successor Rajiv Gandhi to retain and develop the aura of national authority which has devolved on him.  Indira Gandhi’s perception of political stability and national security required her to attempt to establish a family dynasty.  As the chosen political heir Rajiv Gandhi had not unveiled any specific plans for economic and political reforms, nor had he indicated any new dimensions of foreign policy.  The creation of an atmosphere of dynastic succession before her death did not enhance her son’s stature and political commentators foresaw many uncertainties for the heir-apparent and for India’s domestic and foreign policies.  What vitally changed the national situation was the long shadow cast by Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of two Sikh guards.

To review the trend of events after October 31, 1984, which bolstered Rajiv’s political legitimacy, it is necessary to emphasize several elements: (1) Rajiv Gandhi gained a strategic advantage by pre-empting the intentions and capabilities of other political actors by his speedy induction as prime minister, although the constitutional merit of the move was not quite clear. (2) The issue of hereditary succession was rendered irrelevant by Rajiv’s supportive gestures to emotionally overwhelmed Hindus (the majority community) and his striving to establish a Hinduistic basis for regime legitimacy by manipulating selective perceptions in the mass media.  (3) The bizarre encouragement by the ruling Congress Party to the mobs in the capital New Delhi who settled scores with an intransigent minority aroused dangerous latent suspicions, which in turn rendered fruitless the attempts of opposition leaders to attempt to project alternatives for the peaceful settlement of the Punjab (Sikh) problem through dialogue. (4) Rajiv Gandhi sustained his electoral campaign on the program of national unification and obtained a resounding psychological victory on the basis of a commitment to modernization and pragmatism, and by his promise to exert an all-out effort to administer a “clean” government.  His electoral strategy generated negative questioning about the infighting in the opposition and prevented it from articulating any major political themes in its campaigning.

The delegitimizing potential of a dynastic succession in a democracy has been eroded by the direct and consequential repercussions of the massive electoral mandate won by Rajiv Gandhi which has had a nationwide as well as a worldwide impact.  The political liability of being part of a family dynasty has for the time being been pushed into the background, but it may not stay there if ever there is a strong shift in the public mood in India.  For the foreseeable future the legitimizing values of the Indian political order can be harnessed by the regime on a far wider range of issues.  Nevertheless, since Indian politics still remain polarized, the basic ambiguity in public opinion about dynastic succession has not significantly reduced the ambivalence toward Rajiv Gandhi in a significant part of the political spectrum, as can be inferred from the results of the follow-up state level elections in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Sikkim.

Much of the feel for the new government is based upon perceptions which revolve around the interpretation of the generational change which is reflected in a political transition.  Much is being made of the challenging opportunity to renovate the leadership at all levels in order to break out of the inertia and immobilism of the party and state bureaucracy.  There is no doubt that the post-Indira Gandhi changes have developed a momentum and have threatened entrenched positions created by the encouragement given to centralization and bureaucratization during the last two decades.  It is, however, possible to exaggerate the modernizing mentality of the new generation and to underestimate the resistance from within to effort for overcoming the continuing stagnation in several key sectors of India’s political, economic and psychological landscape.  Changes in the elite composition at the summit cannot by themselves produce human and organizational capabilities at lower levels which are needed for revitalization of the national life.  It is also necessary to point to the inconsistent and contradictory approaches to the question of generational change, since movement up the ladder in many cases is only for those who have the right connections with the Nehru family from preceding generations.

The negative effects on public confidence of the strong arm methods of Rajiv Gandhi’s brother Sanjay Gandhi have contributed to a sense of relief on seeing a new avenue of hope through someone who offers modernization by placing technocrats and managers in privileged positions.  The Janus face of technology was visible from the Indian perspective both in the Bhopal gas tragedy and in the expanding network of computer technology with which the new advisers of Rajiv Gandhi have been underscoring their affinity.  The managerial organs of the bulk of political personnel and resources of the successor regime, and its anxiety to utilize new information technologies, have fostered a more westward orientation in New Delhi, which is sympathetic to the symbols and systems of the Harvard Business School.  The difficult questions of humanizing technology are well beyond the scope of the political reference points of Rajiv Gandhi’s “whiz kids.”  The managerial outlook is conducive to reform against the widespread corruption of Indira Gandhi’s state socialism and wants to divest itself of the legacy of political gangsterism inherited from Sanjay’s goons.  But it fosters a one-dimensional model which ignores the primary sources of the decay of political institutions under Indira Gandhi as well as the beleaguered state of the Indian economy.  The technocratic elite has no wish to establish a wide ranging social dialogue as a priority of national policy.  The riots over the policy of reservations of jobs for under-privileged castes are grim reminders of unsolved problems which the hierarchy and values of a management culture may try to over-simplify.


The optimistic scenario for the new era of Indian politics is based on: (1) a speedy re-evaluation of the developmental strategy in order to free all fetters on the dynamic growth of the economy; (2) expanding the time-horizon to the 21st century and recognizing the interdependent nature of problem areas; (3) maximizing the uniformity of policy objectives and implementation at the central and state levels; (4) high priority for upgrading technology, and (5) pragmatic guidelines for policy decisions and implementation.  A more realistic judgement of the Rajiv administration’s reform policies will hinge on the validity of the assumptions regarding the optimum use of investment resources, which would help to implement the scientific technical revolution which has been promised.  Will the new government be able to sustain its resolve to do away with the ills of the old centralized system against the wishes of the permanent bureaucracy?  Although an effective political operator India Gandhi undermined the decision-making dynamics below her own level.  Even to push through a core program of institutional reform will come up against intransigent realities of India’s bureaucratic society.  At this stage it cannot be taken for granted that the new leadership is fully aware of the functional constraints on its policy choices.  In any event, internal instability and external war could create serious impediments to the implementation of a program for new economic opportunity.

The electoral success of Rajiv Gandhi is both impressive and significant but one falls into a common trap by making too much of it.  It is more important to analyze whether he has learnt strategic lessons from the tragic consequences of his mother’s authoritarian model of leadership, even though he has to continue to pay ritualistic homage to her political qualities.  In order to restructure the procedural and structural framework of Indian policy along participative and integrative lines, the point of departure has to be a clear recognition that Indira Gandhi’s style of leadership encouraged the use of violence for political ends.

Although closely associated with his mother’s confrontationist decisions in several areas in the past, Rajiv Gandhi has an opportunity for a dramatic shift away from the context of political violence by projecting the image of a creative statesman.  In practice it will not be easy to gain acceptance for a consensual approach since the institutional values which he has inherited do not represent consensus priorities either in domestic policy or in foreign policy.  The temptation will be for him to occupy a halfway position between the confrontationist and consensual models of leadership.  While it is too early to tell what the long-term effects of Rajiv Gandhi’s style of leadership will be on India’s future, it is vital to keep two things in mind: (1) any effort to solve the problems of domestic stability, e.g. Punjab and Assam, on an enduring basis will require crafting an entirely different political structure based on the perception and interpretation of a broad consensus, and (2) any hope of establishing peace with India’s neighbours will require a more effective response to long-term regional and international arrangements rather than a unidimensional military approach to national security.

For the new prime minister the issue of Indo-Soviet relations is exceedingly complex and poses uncomfortable dilemmas.  From the Soviet point of view the interlocking of the foreign policies of the two countries is expressed by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971.  Ever since the formal Sino-Soviet split in 1963, the Soviet Union has developed a broader rationale for its political, military and economic effort in Asia.  After concluding the treaty with India, Moscow expected New Delhi to subscribe to Soviet proposals for a system of Asian collective security.  Although India was wary of this move, yet the inexorable pressure of the Indo-Soviet strategic relationship forced India to tilt in favour of the Soviet Union in its political posture between the superpowers.  The dependence of Indian foreign policy on Moscow and its inability to free itself from Soviet tutelage came into sharp relief when Indira Gandhi had to condone the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and left herself with little room for manoeuvre on an issue on which she could have taken  a personal and decisive hand in the Non-aligned Movement.  The constraint of the Soviet connection will continue to have a paralyzing impact on the development of pragmatic and selective policies which are necessary if Rajiv Gandhi is to protect his status as the national leader of the world’s biggest democracy.  A gradual and phased reduction of Soviet influence is all that can be reasonably hoped for.  The possibility of transforming the Indo-Soviet relationship and restoring India’s independent political posture will require above all that New Delhi should ground its orientation in regional realities from which Soviet globalism has been pushing it off balance.

The continuing concern with a strong defense posture reflects a basic continuity of attitude to direct threats to security from China and Pakistan.  India’s relative satisfaction with the present defense system may not prevent a more ambitious grand strategy being developed unless accommodative aspects become more important in Indo-Pakistan and Sino-Indian relations.  The nuclear option also remains at the center of policy making interest, and one may speculate whether political constraints will continue to effectively neutralize military pressures on the Indian leadership.  From the defense perspective it can be seen that the stance of the new Indian leadership under Rajiv Gandhi will in no small degree be determined by the hidden assumptions of the Indian military authorities.  One must avoid overestimating the capacity of a newcomer in the prime ministerial office to integrate political and military points of view in a unified national strategy.  India’s close military relationship with Moscow embraces assumptions and conclusions which are central to Soviet strategic interests.  The last years of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership saw the decline of a total reliance on Soviet arms supplies.  Her successor can be more effective if with discretion he can shift effort and attention to new areas for military cooperation.  What is necessary for working on long-term requirements for Indian security is not so much a Sadat-type defection as a new sense of realism and assertiveness which would set India on the course of utilizing military strategies with multiple options.   

There are many indications that the influence of domestic politics on the formulation of Indian foreign policy has been increasing in new ways.  Domestic expectations as expressed in the Indian parliament and in state legislatures, and in particular opposition criticism, must be taken into consideration in order to hammer out a national consensus.  A serious re-examination of India’s foreign policy posture towards neighbours like Sri Lanka and Pakistan may also require new guidelines to be adopted on domestic policy.  In the area of crisis prevention the central problems in South Asia cannot be handled without taking into account ethnic problems which spill over across state borders.  A false confidence was bred by some of Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy advisers by discouraging public debate and by concentrating on simplistic foreign policy proposals which only generated mistrust among India’s neighbours.  Indira Gandhi herself substituted political rhetoric for policies which could in fact have provided the basis for grass-roots change.  Indira Gandhi’s think tank – the policy planning cell headed by G. Parthasarthi – remained grounded in very rigid perceptions even as India was isolated from the mainstream of non-aligned public opinion.  The new Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will be tying his own hands if he retains for long his dependence on the orthodoxy of the Parthasarthi team.  His massive mandate demands that he should give a noticeably higher priority to a more open dialogue in his foreign policy constituency and thus hopefully create a ground swell of support for his leadership in foreign affairs.


The first round of adjustment in which the political finesse of the new leadership would be tested in restructuring priorities and inputs into India’s role as chairman of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM).  It was inevitable that a certain demystification of Indira Gandhi’s role at the New Delhi Conference of Non-aligned Countries (the Seventh Summit) in 1983, should have taken place.  Indira Gandhi’s NAM doctrine from the 1981 Conference of the Non-aligned Foreign Ministers to her last days in office led India to try to prevent “globalization” of regional and bilateral conflicts.  The Indians used their considerable diplomatic skills to support pro-Soviet actions rather than pro-Soviet policies.  India did not wish to heighten the divisive tendencies in NAM by supporting Cuba’s “natural ally” theory, but as it turned out India’s remedial proposals on both substantive and procedural issues were fairly circumscribed.  In February 1981, the Non-aligned foreign ministers expressed themselves conspicuously on the presence of foreign forces in two of the member countries of NAM.  It is clear that India did not work to produce coherent crisis management modalities and allowed the inertia to be exploited by partisan gains in Afghanistan and Kampuchea.  By not examining the realistic changes of negotiating success through the NAM forum, Indian spokesmen were compelled to provide partial explanations for complex processes which were at work in these conflict arenas.  Actual events have not matched the optimistic predictions given by India of Soviet and Vietnamese withdrawals of occupying forces.  The relation to actual requirements of Indian diplomacy of this passive role was quite tenuous.

The foregoing considerations may have little appeal to the Rajiv administration although official formulations will remain cautious.  There is an obvious Indian need to remove the impression that New Delhi is vulnerable to manipulation by the political allies of the Soviet bloc. It is not difficult to predict incremental advances in restoring India’s capabilities for mitigating tensions in NAM by efforts at reconstructing the framework within which Jawaharlal Nehru and Josip Tito had made decisions.  An essential question is whether the Rajiv administration can apply pressure on Moscow to moderate the Soviet imperative to dominate Non-alignment as a political institution.  To do this India has to devise a credible system for coordination in NAM.  The Six Nation Summit on Nuclear Disarmament in 1985 (India, Mexico, Argentina, Tanzania, Greece and Sweden) came too soon to confront the basic task of constructing a new Rajiv doctrine.  The slow and empirical progress in pursuing a strategy of equilibrium can be maintained if priority is given to political instruments which have not become proxies for inter-bloc conflict.  What deserves emphasis here is that the new Indian government can widen the scope of its interaction in NAM by adopting a case-by-case approach for building a new consensus.  Ignoring the militarization of the Third World and concentrating on the failures of the superpowers to achieve arms control is not the answer to the basic questions of the future.  At NAM India can utilize the widespread opposition to both Soviet and American hegemonial systems and at the same time advance reasonable technical solutions to regional as well as bilateral conflicts in the Third World.  The extraordinary session of Non-aligned foreign ministers in mid-April 1985 in New Delhi over the question of Namibia will be the first test of Rajiv Gandhi’s ability to strike a healthy balance in NAM. 

Rajiv Gandhi cannot possibly overlook the rich benefits which India has and continues to derive from its military relationship with the Soviet Union.  He was kept closely informed of the important visits by Indian defense planners to the Soviet Union since 1983 when important decisions were taken to supply highly sophisticated arms and equipment, including the latest versions of Soviet made aircraft and tanks for the Indian army.  If as prime minister he has today a formidable war machine at his command, it is largely the result of military assistance from Moscow.  Whatever his views on the gratitude which India should feel toward the Soviet Union on the military score, he has to develop some practical procedures for managing the future of Indo-Soviet military relations.  Experience of political succession in the past suggests that the Soviets generally focus on security questions with an intensive thrust in order to win concessions across the board from every new administration in India.  Politically they may adopt low profile and cautious policies to the Rajiv administration but they could be expected to generate pressures by overemphasizing India’s military dependence.  Moscow would seek acts and declarations in a military framework in order to actively involve Indian policymakers in Soviet strategic globalism.  On his part while Rajiv Gandhi would be prepared to continue policy initiatives for the furtherance of the friendly relationship with the Soviets, he is unlikely to wish to pay a high price in terms of unlimited concessions.  In any case it would be a risky course of action for the new incumbent to lose his freedom of manoeuvre by blindly accepting the Soviet Union’s prevailing wisdom on what is best for India.  In arriving at his own policy mix, he is likely to make policy explorations in the following interacting areas:  (1) The Soviet’s perception of their influence in India and their intentions and capabilities in influencing Indian policy toward third parties; (2) the nature of Indian morale in overcoming the constraints of a military client relationship; (3) the Soviet conception of a peace order in South Asia, and (4) Soviet military anxieties for the future in relation to the United States and China.

A new awareness of the need to appraise the military costs in concrete terms is likely to be generated in New Delhi.  It would be wrong for any one to expect a swing in the Indo-Soviet military relationship from the euphoria of Indira Gandhi’s days to something like the Egyptian breakdown.  Rajiv will have every impetus to retain the core of the Indo-Soviet security policy while taking advantage of any substantive military transactions which may be offered by the United States.  The Soviets will of course continue to be highly sensitive to any such moves which they will construe as interference with the closeness of Indo-Soviet strategic interactions. They may respond by emphasizing the urgent need for India to remember the lessons of 1971 and do nothing which may be a setback for its relationship with a “reliable” superpower.  The Soviets can also play up the grave prospects facing India from the encouragement which the United States and China continue to provide to India’s external enemies.  The Soviet Union may also wish to give greater substance to its claim that the Indo-Soviet military relationship is based on the Indo-Soviet Treaty and may seek to avoid certain worst-case assumptions in the center of the Indo-Soviet dialogue.


The strengthened morale of the government of India following the massive electoral mandate could be used to serve a variety of purposes.  It could be used to stress the primacy of economic development and modernization and downgrade the need for rhetorical political warfare which the Soviets prefer India to employ against the West and its supporters; it could be used to check the dynamics of the South Asian arms race by initially not giving automatic credence to the Soviet-sponsored pessimistic scenarios of events and interactions, and it could encourage a region-wide momentum to work for regional détente without involving either of the superpowers and thus departing from the traditional Soviet pursuit of the “honest broker’s” role since the Tashkent Conference days.  The Soviet regionalist position is none too attractive for India since on a whole range of difficult issues Moscow would like to use India as an instrument of regional tension.  India can hardly expect to develop a more overt role for developing a peace order in South Asia with the help of the Soviet Union which has a large military build-up in Afghanistan.  An India which can distance itself from Moscow will hold more cards for defusing tensions and building bridges of peace in the region.

The issue of India’s attitude to the Sino-American relationship has many uncertainties and the Soviets did not have much difficulty in the past in obtaining leverage in New Delhi on this score.  India and the Soviet Union will continue to find many aspects of Sino-American understanding and cooperation as a common anathema but if the process of adjustment between New Delhi and Beijing proceeds, Moscow will find it more difficult to precipitate a sense of crisis in New Delhi or evoke intensity of Indian feelings.

It remains to be seen whether there is anything more than a glimmer of hope that India and the United States will be successful in dealing with each other under the new dispensation than was possible under the policy orientation of Indira Gandhi.  We would do well to recall that when she became prime minister on the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965, it was fashionable in US government circles to look upon her as a pragmatist in contrast to her father Jawaharlal Nehru who was considered as an ideologue who was ready to compromise with Soviet wishes.  She was regarded as a kind of counterweight to Nehru’s pro-Communist and pro-Soviet adviser Krishna Menon, and it was concluded from her actions as Congress Party president against the Communist government in the state of Kerala, that she would attempt to rejuvenate the government and party leadership with new ideas, leading to active cooperation with the US.  At that time it was not predictable that she would split the Congress Party, remove American sympathizers like Asoka Mehta and induct pro-Soviet advisers like Kumaramanglam, P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, T.N.Kaul, G. Parthasarthi and Nurul Hassan.  The euphoria in US government circles and the western media with the “young and relatively inexperienced” Rajiv Gandhi is reminiscent of the hopes placed on Indira Gandhi that she had ushered in a new era in the evolution of Indian foreign policy.  Certain hard facts are relatively unpalatable to American decision-makers and observers: India does not have a deterrent to the security threat arising out of Chinese and Pakistani strategic cooperation without Soviet aid; India continues to have objections to the continuance of the US base on Diego Garcia, and India considers the US build-up of the Pakistani armed forces as running counter to the stability and prosperity of South Asia.  Ever since the pro-Pakistan tilt of the Nixon administration during the Bangladesh war, India remains wary of a potentially conflictual and crisis-prone projection of American power in South Asia.  Positive assurances by Washington to New Delhi that the US is against any destabilization in South Asia will achieve little, if Indian suspicions are not removed by taking India into confidence that outmoded assumptions of interventionary diplomacy have been abandoned not only by the State Department but by the hawkish sectors in the Pentagon as well. 

Pakistan’s involvement in several wars with India is not perceived as a failure of Indian diplomacy in New Delhi.  Pakistani belligerence is seen as the direct result of American contribution in upgrading Islamabad’s military strength.  The Pakistani resolve to acquire nuclear weapons is also seen primarily as anillustration of the US encouragement to Pakistan to develop an offensive capacity, although more recently the Islamic and Chinese participation in building up Pakistan’s nuclear capacity have been highlighted in New Delhi.  India will be further drawn into confrontation with Pakistan if Islamabad tests a nuclear device.  In view of the close military relationship of Pakistan with the United States and her unhappy past experience, India’s relations with the US may again deteriorate.  Rajiv Gandhi cannot afford to make any concessions to the US view on Pakistan unless Washington’s policy moves in the following directions: (a) The US begins contributing markedly to Indian defense needs; (b) the US affirms India’s territorial integrity in Kashmir; (c) the US places new emphasis on the nonuse of American arms supplied to Pakistan and lays down enforceable sanctions, and (d) the US makes credible its ability and willingness to cooperate with India to deny Pakistan a nuclear option.

On Afghanistan Rajiv Gandhi has inherited a situation which compels India to refrain from opposing Soviet intransigence in any meaningful way.  Any change in this policy will require political and strategic incentives for New Delhi to work seriously for a new political consensus.  To be realistic it must be remembered that an easy route to political popularity in India lies through a confrontational frame of reference with Pakistan.  For the new government in New Delhi to forgo this advantage there should be some compensation in acquiring the status and prestige of either participation in international peacekeeping machinery or of hosting an international conference on the Geneva pattern.  Given the existing constraints of the Soviet relationship and the existing disincentives of policy-change toward Pakistan, India would have little incentive to evolve any promising strategy to deal with the Afghanistan imbroglio.


Rajiv Gandhi’s first official visit to Washington slated for June 1985 will have the advantages of congenial atmospherics but is otherwise difficult to define in political terms in view of the uncertainties outlined above.  There has been a favourable consensus building in Washington and New Delhi on scientific, technological and economic cooperation.  The reflex actions against the capitalist-free enterprise outlook of the Nehru era are no longer relevant to official Indian thinking. The worship at the alter of modern technology of India’s new decision-makers has impressed US policy-makers in the administration, Congress and the corporate sector.  The conceptual appeal of a country which has moved away from socialist rhetoric to an open acceptance of alternative approaches of a more open economic system is quite strongly felt in a neo-conservative America.  The practical pitfalls of Reaganomics in the Third World which were much talked about earlier are not likely to have their impact on specific policy choices covered in New Delhi’s present moves toward Washington.  The possibilities of a more dismal future for India’s poor under a haphazard import of modern technology have been pushed aside for the time being. India’s greater stake in economic relations with the United States is currently being more dominated by the optimistic perceptions of the Rajiv leadership than by any basic assessment of the long-term effect of a modernization policy.  The Janata government (1977-79) had adopted concepts which stressed agriculture and promotion of small and medium enterprises and was striving toward promoting the ethos in economic development associated with the name of Mahatma Gandhi.  The thought process of the new technological elite who are in communication and dialogue with the Rajiv government have ambitions which if not checked or balanced may overthrow structures fostering independent and small scale economic activities.  Even in this new elite there is some resistance to the idea of tying up Indian economic relations to the United States and to question the long-term effect of the present trends which appear tantalizingly positive to some of Rajiv’s advisers.  By contrast there is more agreement on developing technological relations with Japan which is recognized in India as both a source of high technology and also having rationalized its industrial structure with an appropriate place for small and medium enterprises.  Such considerations may set a limit to New Delhi’s penchant for a technological break-through with the United States.

A fundamental rethinking on the problem of India’s relations with China dates back to 1976 when the Sino-Indian dialogue was resumed by India reappointing an ambassador to its Embassy at Beijing.  India has now the opportunity to analyze and reflect on eight years of interstate relations and efforts to resolve murky and tangled questions which have jeopardized peace and security between these two Asian giants.  The mistrust generated by the clash of 1962 still plays a significant role in shaping India’s perceptions and attitudes and provides a common political purpose to India and the Soviet Union.   

India’s chief objective in the six rounds of official level talks with China was to discover clues regarding the future pattern of Chinese behaviour within the framework of China’s return to international legitimacy.  India has not attempted seriously to put forth any answers of its own in pursuing a new beginning with its peace diplomacy.  The last ambitious effort to attempt a comprehensive settlement still remains the Colombo proposals of 1963 whose non-aligned sponsors had hoped that India and China would adopt more relaxed postures by creating a demilitarized zone by withdrawing their armies 20 kilometers on either side.  Significantly India accepted and China rejected the Colombo proposals, because their implementation would have taken the two countries back to the situation prevailing before August 8, 1962 when the earliest border clashes occurred in the Chip Chap valley and other places in the Himalayas.  From the point of view of achieving a settlement the last six rounds of official level talks appear to be a flawed model like the earlier one from 1958 to 1960.  Elaborate efforts to construct a framework within which a comprehensive settlement may be achieved and to seek to place each side’s claims in better perspective, by presenting comfortable notions of a common border have only generated vacuous and misleading results and diverted attention from the examination of the dynamics of military competition between the two Asian states.

The primary objective of Chinese policy is to formalize and legitimize their presence in Tibet and to secure a de jure acceptance by India of their existing territorial control in the Himalayas.  What is most disconcerting from India’s point of view is that the motivation behind Deng Xiaoping’s diplomatic strategy is still one of wielding the military clout in the Himalayas, although the post-Mao regime has promised a constructive relationship to New Delhi and has blamed the Gang of Four for applying pressures against India.  The confidence of Indian strategic planners has not been enhanced by the Karakoram Highway or by the construction of eight major airfields in Tibet, which the Chinese have completed.

Rajiv Gandhi’s policy is initially likely to be aimed at persuading China that he would be interested in a wider range of reciprocal economic, technological, cultural and political relations.  The new expectations for Sino-Indian relations could also be fostered on the hope that Rajiv would to some extent reverse course and model a posture of independence toward Moscow.  He is also in a better position than his mother to defend an overall settlement with China in terms of India’s national interest, since he can redefine Indian political aims and security needs in terms of economic and social modernization and ask the Indian political elite to avoid the tendency to think in terms of “zero sums” in the new era in which China is unmistakably involved in implementing Deng Xiaoping’s modernization concerns.

While the new prime minister is not hampered by the suspicions and traumas of Indira Gandhi which often masqueraded as policy, it is worth asking whether Rajiv Gandhi will be more realistic from the outset in understanding the rationale for the Chinese military built-up effort in Tibet and in examining the worst-case syndrome of the Chinese role in Pakistan’s nuclear efforts.  Thus in due course the conceptual foundation of Rajiv Gandhi’s China policy may come to include the “Tibet Card” and Indian analytical thinking may focus less on border demarcation and more on generating political and military constraints to ensure peace in the Himalayas.  The political resilience of the Dalai Lama of Tibet is of immense psychological value to India and the Rajiv administration is likely to go further than its predecessors in raising the question of the legitimate rights of the Tibetans.  There exists a tendency in Western political commentary to refrain from speaking frankly about the Tibetan question for fear of offending the susceptibilities of Beijing.  The resumption of active relations between New Delhi and Beijing has in fact resulted in improving the political status of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile in Dharamsala (the Kashag), and the explicit recognition of this is that Beijing has had contacts and negotiations with several delegations sent by the Dalai Lama from Dharamsala.  From New Delhi’s point of view there is no harm if Beijing’s dilemmas on Tibet multiply.  India needs several bargaining chips to negotiate a modification of the present military state of affairs in which the Chinese have 250,000 troops stationed in Tibet.  A strategically feasible framework cannot be constructed from India’s point of view unless the Chinese military presence in Tibet is sharply reduced.  In the absence of demilitarization of Tibet, Indian geopolitical and security requirements can only be met by the present large-scale Himalayan deployment of Indian forces.  Indian policymakers have not been convinced of the utility of any alternative security arrangements even if there is a border settlement with China.  Stability in Sino-Indian security relations, therefore, does not depend upon a legal settlement but on the overall military balance of forces.  New Delhi is, therefore, likely to emphatically articulate the view that the one-sided package offer of China does not provide a pointer for more effective measures in the future in terms of disengagement, disarmament and denuclearization, all of which are necessary for institutionalizing the Sino-Indian détente.


India’s conflict with Pakistan has been casting fearsome shadows over most dimensions of politics in South Asia.  After signing the Simla Agreement, Indira Gandhi claimed that her role was that of a peacemaker toward Pakistan, but both she and the Pakistani leaders continued to fit each other into enemy images.  She certainly had a point when she saw deeper meanings in the Pakistani encouragement to Sikh extremists, but she refused to look closely at similar characteristics in Indian policy in the symmetrical case of Sindh.  Political interference across the border has not been the monopoly of either country.

The recognition that an Indo-Pakistan agreement on the avoidance of war would contribute to the stabilization of South Asia was officially accepted by Indira Gandhi’s government, but her personal actions were hardly conductive to either clarity or predictability.  For instance negotiations with Pakistan were time and again interrupted by new and unforeseen difficulties.  It is true that Indo-Pakistan relations are complex, but India’s sharp reactions to Pakistani irritants sometimes take on a momentum of their own.  In 1984, as heir-apparent, Rajiv Gandhi described Pakistan’s strategy as being designed for concerted action against India and along with this line of thought he alleged that Pakistan had a deadline by which it would attack India.

There is hardly any doubt that any efforts at rapprochement with Pakistan by the new government will have to take into account the need for a constructive exchange of opinions on both domestic and foreign policy issues.  It is not in Rajiv Gandhi’s interests to persist in strengthening the confrontational elements within the Indian setup and to use Indira Gandhi’s negative and obstructive role as a textbook example.  He can soften his rhetoric toward Pakistan and outline new and wider goals for the peace process between India and Pakistan.  He can be expected to resume the meeting of the Indo-Pakistan Joint Commission and ask his officials to probe Pakistan’s capabilities and intentions more closely.  Nonetheless, Rajiv Gandhi will not find it easy to define his tactical and strategic goals except in terms of disrupting Pakistan’s extra regional linkages.  Washington’s insistence on an escalated weapons supply to Pakistan can only create a fundamental scepticism in the minds of Indian policy makers and any initiative by Rajiv Gandhi to dispel the mood of negativism which he has inherited from Indira Gandhi cannot hope to succeed, unless Islamabad moves out of its strategic consensus with Washington and establishes a modus vivendi with New Delhi through reciprocal assurances on security matters.  The Reagan administration might well complicate Indo-Pakistani relations by engaging in security ventures on the Pakistan model with India’s other neighbours:  Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.  The political history of Indo-Pakistan relations shows that both governments are trapped in the prisoner’s dilemma and there are no easy answers to the problems created by their being the focal points of superpower competition.

Indian representatives vehemently deny charges of interference in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.  There can, however, be little question that Indira Gandhi was not interested in seeking a modus vivendi with President Junius Jayewardene whose values in domestic and global  politics were anathema to her compared to the favourable assumptions she had formed about his rival Sirimavo Bandaranaike.  Indira Gandhi’s domestic alliance with the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party in the state of Tamil Nadu which favours national self-determination for the Sri Lankan Tamils also was not conductive to the discovery of a variety of alternatives for the matrix of Tamil-Sinhalese relations in Sri Lanka.  The former Indian prime minister was presumably more pleased with the fortunes of her party’s coalition-partner in Tamil Nadu than with any serious effort to lower the tensions between two ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.  Rajiv Gandhi inherited a vacuum of diplomatic leadership because of the chief Indian negotiator G. Parthasarthi, himself a Tamil, was regarded as obviously partisan.  The anomaly concerning the use of this particular negotiating emissary was apparently only detected when the new Indian prime minister personally received the Sri Lanka National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali after a telephone call from president Jayewardene.  As of this writing, the possibility that both countries might stumble into military confrontation is very much on the anvil since some of Rajiv Gandhi’s hawkish advisers are encouraging him to take bigger risks.  Sooner or later, India’s confrontationist actions will push Sri Lanka into accepting the United States as a regional policeman and then India’s worst fears about Diego Garcia would be fulfilled.  Rajiv Gandhi can, however, make the political climate more favourable by refraining from encouraging domestic receptivity toward the terrorist activity in Sri Lanka and by refraining from semantic exercises which undermine the legitimacy of the Jayewardene government.  The real problem is to reduce the issue to its true proportions by encouraging evolutionary constitutional changes in Sri Lanka and by voicing support for an early end to the acts of barbarous cruelty being perpetrated by both the Tamil terrorists and the Sri Lankan security forces.  In deciding the course of future Indian policy Rajiv Gandhi cannot afford not to see the overall political relationship between the problems of Elam (Tamil Free State) and Khalistan (Sikh Free State) and it would be appropriate to return to the more comprehensive concept of Indo-Sri Lankan relations formulated by a former Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, who had established a cordial relationship with President Jayewardene through a broad and flexible grasp of Indo-Sri Lankan relations.  A reversal of the recent unfortunate trends under Indira Gandhi is possible if Rajiv Gandhi shows a broader vision to upgrade the identity and activism of the Tamils through meaningful political participation in Sri Lanka.  If he wishes to engender a respect for India’s peace identity he can share a new sense of urgency with the Tamil leaders to develop realistic demands and help to achieve their goals by cooperation with the Sri Lankan government.  Rajiv Gandhi with his own democratic mandate can have a powerful impact on the public attitudes of both Sinhalese and Tamils if he can abjure brinkmanship.

The commitment to regional organization had been a weak component of foreign policy under Indira Gandhi.  The imperatives of the hegemonic game which she loved to play with the other leaders in South Asia led her to view the South Asian Regional Cooperation (SARC) concept as low-key functional group rather than a political institutional group presaging an increasing role for collective decisions by the political actors in the region.  After the Simla Agreement of July 1972, Indira Gandhi perceived India transformed into the dominant regional power and adopted bilateral diplomacy as an exclusive posture.  The successful outcome of her decision to intervene in Bangladesh’s liberation misled her to see unambiguous advantages in the configuration of bilateralism.  When President Zia-ur Rahman of Bangladesh camp up with the SARC concept, Indira Gandhi could not drastically reject the initiative, but her basic response was to refuse to invest the regional arrangement with political power and responsibility.

From the policy statements by Rajiv Gandhi after assumption of office it would appear that he comprehends the powerful compulsion of public opinion in favour of South Asian regional cooperation and perceives opportunities for leadership in organizing the South Asian community.  The revival of Indian self-confidence also provides an incentive for him to revive the style of moral leadership which his grand father Jawaharlal Nehru used with advantage in international relations before the complicated problems with China erupted into an acute crisis.


If Rajiv Gandhi wishes to move away from the crude projection of India’s military power and not develop the profile of a cold war warrior, he can achieve a recognized role and status of a constructive statesman who works for consensus by strongly supporting the political dimension of the regional interactive process.  It is not possible for him to break loose from the rigidity in foreign policy postures toward individual countries in South Asia without raising doubts about his ability to defend national interest.  If he allows the institutional link represented by SARC to gain in political importance, he can, however, make overtures for coexistence and shed Indira Gandhi’s confrontationist reflexes.  He can shift to a more benign neighbourhood policy by presenting it as a legitimate expression of the new regional configuration of peace and cooperation.

The SARC political summit at the end of 1985 can be formalized and dramatized as a striking expression of Indian foreign policy directed toward a political and economic framework that takes full account of the region’s aspiration for balanced and self-sustained growth, and for reducing the probability and consequences of domestic turmoil and external war.  The Indian prime minister can also attempt to implement a broader strategy for avoiding polarization around the superpowers and suggest a constructive endeavour for supporting common defense goals of the region.

Rajiv Gandhi has been groomed by him mother for the position he now occupies as prime minister for the past four years.  When she was alive there was a wide range of agreement between the two of them on a host of specific issues in foreign policy: aggressive rhetoric toward Pakistan and Sri Lanka; alarmist portrayal of external threats and the hidden hand (hints of Western complicity); closer military integration with the Soviets, and cooperation with Western Europe with hints of anti-American bias.  Had Indira Gandhi lived on and Rajiv Gandhi had been made foreign minister under her, he would have been automatically involved in the standardized perceptions of his mother and publicly committed himself to the Soviet inspired views on global antagonisms.  By arriving on the international scene with a massive popular mandate after his mother’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi has discovered a new freedom for manoeuvre both in areas of political and security matters and in the evaluation of existing socio-economic policies.  It is unlikely that he will take a watershed decision which will cut through the contradictions of the inherited policies, nor is there any evidence that he can create a political vision of a new Indian foreign policy to suit the evolving international systems structure.  Given the circumstances, he is, however, to urgently demarcate areas of vital interest to consolidate his own legitimacy in India’s external relations.  His working basis in foreign policy can be discovered by (a) examining the new ranking of priorities and the credibility of his commitments, (b) assessing the departures from stereotyped analysis of policy issues and (c) assessing new trade-offs in existing policies which may be henceforth applied with a clearer grasp of the international context.

Although there is no overall Rajiv design in foreign policy yet visible, it is possible to postulate the following eight objectives which are broadly related to the awareness among his inner circle of the distortions in the legacy received from Indira Gandhi:

  1. To achieve technological upgrading by rapidly widening access to Western and Japanese technology, and to overcome difficulties on the foreign aid front by searching for new ways of obtaining credits and strengthening the role of commercial borrowing.

  2. To identify areas of potential growth in foreign trade and to transform the present orientation of the export sector consistent with the stimulation of Indian economic growth.

  3. To make sure that Pakistan renounces the nuclear option and to limit as much as possible Pakistan-Arab military cooperation.

  4. To promote a good neighbourhood policy by encouraging and supporting SARC through both substantive projects and symbolic recognition.

  5. To regain credibility with the NAM countries by dispelling the general impression widely held that India has imposed serious inhibitions on its actions where Soviet interests are involved.

  6. To win recognition of “high profile” for Indo-US relationships and asserting a major power status for India in global questions, while looking beyond the traumatic experience of 1971.

  7. To deny manipulative options to the Soviet Union while retaining the existing security and political relationship.

  8. To increase deterrence options available against China while reinforcing pragmatic goals for a continuing Sino-Indian dialogue.

Some of the most complex problems confronting the new government relate to the exaggerated expectations which have been aroused, especially in the economic sphere.  The promise of unleashing the forces of creative change can only be fulfilled if a more confident India can avoid war and control domestic strife.  Inspite of her aspirations to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Indira Gandhi did little to engender thinking for relating India’s power to the pursuit of stable peace.  Her personal political aims were fulfilled by the steady build-up of India’s military might and although she did not allow the military active participation in her decision-making, she enjoyed every opportunity to address the military in hawkish rhetoric on the challenges and threats to Indian security.  Although it is misleading to speak of simple choices in South Asian security issues, by not responding to the pragmatic instincts of the people of the Indian subcontinent when the Soviet troops appeared on the Khyber Pass, Indira Gandhi undoubtedly showed too little consideration for Pakistani security interests, fuelled the arms race between India and Pakistan and allowed both the countries to go in for further manifestation of rivalry and confrontation.  Her domestic imperatives led her to mount Operation Blue Star in the Punjab as a drastic surgery.  Although this action did not inject the military into the evolution of Indian politics, it did however lead to alienation and disillusionment among the Sikhs and distorted national priorities by giving a military dimension to internal peace-keeping to an extent hitherto inconceivable.  In the circumstances she found a natural alliance with the pro-Moscow left in India but began to feel insecure about the base of support in the mainstream of Indian politics.  She could never recover the popularity she enjoyed during the 1971 operations which led to the emergence of Bangladesh.  The joint political effort with the Soviet Union enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Indian public.  But in the 1980s the public displayed ambiguous feelings toward the pro-Soviet constraints on Indian foreign policy which Indira Gandhi continued to accept with Parthasarthi as the principal agent of foreign policy.

The range of choices available to Rajiv Gandhi is circumscribed both by the predilections of the influential civilian bureaucracy and the underlying features of the Indian security system.  By the massive electoral victory which has placed him in a position to dominate the top echelons of the Indian political process for the next five years, Rajiv Gandhi has undoubtedly elasticized the domestic parameters of foreign policy.  But the militarization of Indian foreign policy under Indira Gandhi created strong linkages between the civil and military bureaucracies and the Soviets and their sympathizers on a common attitude favouring a confrontationist stance in the region and strong upward movement in Indian defense budgets.  These groups are strategically located to resist new inputs into policy formation and will continue to influence the trajectory of Indian security policies and through them condition the overriding Indian foreign policy objectives even in the new milieu.  Rajiv Gandhi’s switch to an alternative set of pragmatic policies will not be easy for the new policy mix is likely to come up against the “compulsions of security.”  The future will show whether he can exercise his right to choose a peace policy or whether he will take India further into the quagmire of militarization.

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