India rewrote history by upsetting the conventional wisdom that democracies could exist only in developed nations. Yet our foreign policy undermined our chances
It is speculative how the military parade became the centerpiece in Republic Day celebrations at Rajpath. The Republic Day commemorates January 26, 1950, the day the bulk of the Constitution of India came into force. The armed forces had no role in its making and the text nowhere refers to them. However, given the robust traditions of an apolitical army, institutionalised by the British, there was never a conflict between the civilian government and the military in India. No doubt General K.M. Cariappa (Retd), India’s first Chief of Army Staff, had blurted out in 1971 that the Constitution should be scrapped, and India should be placed under military rule, at least temporarily, “to put things right in the country.” But he never lost his credentials or post-retirement benefits on account of such sacrilege. He was still invested with the Five Star General Rank or Field Marshal by the President. That is the beauty of democracy.
In contrast, the United States of America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, took long to reconcile itself with the necessity of a large standing Army. The Army, unlike the Navy, was perceived as a potential threat to the civilian government. This is despite the fact that the first US President, George Washington, had been a reputed general himself. When the US got accidentally drawn into the World War I on April 6, 1917, its standing Army was a constabulary force of 127,151 in addition to a national guard of 181,620. Though it expanded to 3.68 million troops within 18 months of WWI, it again shrunk to a size of 125,000 personnel between 1919 and 1939, the smallest for any great power.
The World War II inflated the size of the Army to 8.3 million troops, about five million of whom were posted overseas. It is estimated that 12 per cent of the US population served in some branch of the military during the WWII. As the Cold War followed the World War II, the US came to rely on its military superiority as a means of protecting the “free world.” The military pacts like NATO, ANZUS, CENTO and SEATO became the order of the day.
In the post-WWII phase, both India and the US demonstrated a divergent approach towards democracy and militarisation. India became the world’s largest democracy based on a universal adult suffrage. But this status found little reflection in the nation’s foreign policy. The significance of India becoming a democracy was never fully realised. By the end of WWII, there were only 12 democracies left in the world, down from all 29 in 1926, courtesy the rise of authoritarian regimes based on fascism and Nazism. The defeat of the Axis Powers signalled a process of re-democratisation. But the Russian victory also meant expansion of Communism, which sealed the fate of re-democratisation in a number of countries in WWII. Writing in 1950, John Foster Dulles, later to be US Secretary of State, says, “Already Soviet Communism has extended its control over more than 700,00,000 people, or about, one third of the human race. This has happened in thirty three years. Never before have so few gained so much, so fast (War or Peace, P.2).” Dulles, when he became Secretary of State (1953-59), favoured the policy of “liberation” of East Europe and other communist-dominated regions, as against the “containment” theory of his predecessor Dean Acheson.
At a time when one-third of humanity was somehow under the sway of Communism, it was no mean achievement to bring one sixth of humanity to the light of democracy. This political “miracle” happened in India. As a result of the first general elections in 1951-52, India’s 36.5 crore population (as per Census, 1951) came alive under a parliamentary democracy. India rewrote history by upsetting the conventional wisdom that democracies could exist only in industrially developed, affluent and educationally forward nations.
India and the US should have enjoyed the best of relations based on the common factor of democracy. But if the relationship had failed to take off in the first place during Nehru’s visit to the USA (1949) during Harry S. Truman’s presidency, the relationship actually plummeted during the first three years of Eisenhower administration (1953-56). The reason was despite Eisenhower’s sympathy for the third world, his Secretary of State Dulles was inflexible and dogmatic about democracy. India was no doubt the world’s largest democracy. But it refused to be its standard bearer on the world stage. Nehru’s pronounced Marxist leanings were traceable at least since 1927 when he had participated in the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism in Brussels, Belgium. At this conference, Nehru had “come around to the Marxist viewpoint in broad essentials. He agreed that imperialism and capitalism went hand in hand, and neither would disappear until both were put down (S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol-1, P.101).” Nehru had been to Moscow in 1927 to participate in the decennial celebrations of the October Revolution, 1917.
Dulles felt India was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. During the Korean War (1950-53), the US had militarily intervened to save a democratic South Korea from being overrun by a communist North Korea. India’s foreign policy during the Korean War was perceived as scattered and confused. Nehru as the External Affairs Minister, B.N. Rau in the UNO, High Commissioner V K Krishna Menon, Ambassador Vijay Laxmi Pandit and Ambassador K.M. Pannikar in Beijing were pulling in different directions. China entered the Korean War on the side of North Korea in October, 1950. But Nehru was seen lobbying for the Republic of China’s seat in UN Security Council, when it was not even a member of the UN till 1971. Ironically, Mao’s China at that moment was also busy annexing Tibet, with grave security repercussions for India itself.
India never allowed its armed forces to be used for the defence of a “free world” that the US might have liked. In 1955, India fashioned its greatest foreign policy statement, much to the chagrin of the US. It along with 28 other nations formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the Bandung Conference (April 18-24, 1955) in Indonesia. The NAM was mostly an assortment of newly de-colonised nations of Africa and Asia, which did not want to be part of any bloc (East or West) or sign military pacts. Not all founding members of the NAM were democratic. Countries like Yugoslavia and Cuba were communist, though not part of the Eastern Bloc. Democracy was not part of the 10-point NAM Charter (an expansion of Nehru’s five principles of Panchashila). Democracy was first adopted by the NAM as a guiding principle in 2006, at the Havana Conference, ironically in a country (Cuba) that itself has no democracy till date.
In 1955 itself, India began its lasting relationship with the USSR, occasioned by the visit of Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin to India, and Nehru’s return visit to Moscow. The relationship between the world’s two largest democracies became all the more complex. India’s status as the world’s largest democracy and its foreign policy were out of sync. But so it was for the USA, which in pursuit of saving the “free world,” can support the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee in South Korea but overthrow a democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegg in Iran or President Salvador Allende in Chile. Those were the crude realities of the Cold War.
(Writer: Priyadarshi Dutta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)