At the very dawn of Indian independence, in a world awash in Cold War politics, the new country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the dangers of getting drawn into military alliances with the superpowers. Thus New Delhi’s non-alignment foreign policy became enshrined, and led to India becoming a force for unity among developing countries.

Today, however, while the need for unity among developing countries persists, India has gradually shunned its traditional policy of leading the Third World. Instead of being an instrument sustaining solidarity among developing countries, New Delhi has chosen to move closer to the developed countries for its economic and military advancement through a policy of multi-alignment.

Nehru believed that India would not be considered an equal partner in the prevailing alliance system given the asymmetry in power. Though newly independent India would receive material and military support from whichever superpower it aligned with, it would have to surrender its independence, and the support it received could never be turned into long-term development, he believed.

Nehru believed that involvement in Cold War politics would lead to greater militarization of the world, which would sabotage the peace and stability that was a necessary precondition for the growth and development of newly independent countries. Only a non-alignment policy could grant India the necessary maneuverability and independence of action for long-term development during the Cold War.

The concerns of the newly independent countries were different from those of the superpowers. While Cold War politics divided the world into East and West, the developing countries preferred not to be entangled in that division. Non-aligned foreign policy brought economic underdevelopment of the Third World countries to the fore and pointed to a new division of the world on the economic basis that is termed “North and South.”

Fear and apprehension toward the great powers, bitter experience under colonial rule, the militaristic nature of Cold War politics and the yearning for independence of action and socio-economic development as a newly independent country were the driving factors behind India going for a non-alignment foreign policy.

Non-militaristic understanding of security

India, being a developing country with similar anti-colonial experiences, growth trajectory, and Cold War experiences, along with having long-term cultural transactions historically with other post-colonial states, was poised to understand the predicaments of other developing countries in a much better way than many developed countries.

Indian efforts in the backdrop of the Somali civil war in the early 1990s were significant. Understanding social conditions also leads to a better political understanding of a situation. However, the US-spearheaded Operation Restore Hope took a militaristic turn and the United Nations forces in Somalia were declared to be new warlords, imperialists and an occupation army. In this larger context, India decided to take part in the UN operation. After the withdrawal of American and other Western troops, the UN operation became largely a Third World effort.

There was increasing pressure from media warning India to pull out of Somalia after many Indian soldiers lost their lives during the operation. However, many clan leaders like Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Ali Mahdi Muhammad and General Mohammed Said Hersi Morgan wrote to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN secretary general, urging that the Indian contingent be retained.

Political leaders expressed their desire to seek assistance specifically from India in reconstructing Somalia. Radio Mogadishu appreciated the Indian Navy’s patrol vessel INS Sukanya‘s commendable support to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) by carrying basic drugs and medicines, high-energy food, vaccines and immunization equipment, and blankets to people affected by the civil war.

India’s emphasis on supplying essential commodities like water was admirable from a human-security perspective. It was the Indian contingent that drilled two high-capacity water wells in Boidoa and Bardela using indigenous equipment, which later led to the use of Indian equipment to bore hundreds of tube-wells to supply water to villagers in remote areas.

The Indian Brigade revived the Bonkai Orphanage and Indian soldiers played the role of teachers for the orphans. Indian Army engineers built mosques in Oddur and Wajid in deference to the religious beliefs of the local people. India’s 66 Infantry Brigade took effective measures to rehabilitate a large number of refugees.

Aidid’s remarks on India’s role were noteworthy in that they underlined the importance of a Third World security perspective and India’s conformity to that in the maintenance of human security. He said: “It is well known to Somalis that Indians would not be trigger-happy like Americans. Coming from a developing country, they understand the problems of another developing country.” Brigadier M P Bhagat reiterated the same security perspective of India when he said: “We will open fire only when the situation is out of control. Minimum force will be used with all caution and warning that is what we are preaching.”

Egalitarian economic order

India played an important and effective role at the Bandung Conference in 1955 by setting an economic agenda for the developing countries. The agenda included technical assistance, establishment of a special United Nations fund for economic development and stabilization of commodity trade and prices.

Indian representatives played a leading role in persuading the UN to designate the 1960s as the First Development Decade and to undertake preparatory measures for setting up the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In an effort to address the structural inequalities between the developed and developing countries, India’s commerce minister in the first UNCTAD meeting held in 1964 said that preferential treatment should be accorded to the exports of the developing countries. He also emphasized industrialization of the economies of the developing countries apart from the removal of non-tariff barriers and reduction or removal of tariffs.

In the second UNCTAD meeting, India proposed a scheme of general and non-discriminatory preferences in favor of all the developing countries for their manufactures and semi-manufactures and argued that they must be non-reciprocal.

India made use of the Economic and Social Council, the US General Assembly and its committees, and UNCTAD to mobilize support for the cause of the developing countries by sponsoring resolutions and bringing amendments to the resolutions sponsored by other countries. India made a significant contribution to the UNCTAD trust fund for the least developed countries.

India was also one of the influential members of the Group of 77 (the grouping of developing countries intended to coordinate views on structural inequalities of global economic order). Given the failures of the first and second UNCTAD sessions, India tried to use the platform of the Non-Aligned Movement apart from G77 to increase the developing countries’ influence in the UN. With the leadership of India, the developing countries demonstrated maximum solidarity in international bargaining with the developed countries in the NAM’s Algiers Summit in 1973. India tried to make use of all these platforms – the UN, NAM and G77 – to make the New International Economic Order (NIEO) possible.

Underlining the continuing economic predicaments of developing countries in the globalizing era, India’s prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said while addressing the NAM’s Durban Summit in 1998: “Protectionism, currency speculation and flight of capital have been a setback to the economies of many developing countries. Pressures on developing countries have intensified as the new architecture of the multilateral regime in trade, investment, development cooperation, environment and human rights shrink the political space available to developing countries.”

Shift to multi-alignment

India must realize that its interests fall squarely in line with the interests of other developing countries, which can be realized within the UN through broader forums such as the NAM and the G77. When a number of shipments of generic drugs exported by India were confiscated by developed countries in 2008 and 2009 without justification, many developing countries in the G77 opposed this action. The countries that supported India’s protest against agricultural protectionist policies during the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round were members of the G77. India’s interest in amending the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to prevent the developed countries from usurping its bio-resources was supported by members of the G77.

Yet by following a course of multi-alignment, India now is becoming a mere follower of the developed countries by shifting its focus from general-purpose Third World groups like the NAM and G77 to issue-specific groups like the G20 (an economic grouping of developed and leading developing countries). New Delhi believes that its economic interests could be better served within the G20 framework rather than working with developing countries.

But the major international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and multilateral forums like the G20 function to maintain the status quo in international monetary and financial systems, as the majority of countries are either outside their ambit or have less representation than the more developed and powerful countries that exercise their clout within these institutions. Therefore, India must be aware of the fact that without addressing the structural inequalities in the world economic order, any benefit derived from the status quo is bound to be temporary and uneven.

While New Delhi continues to procure upgraded weapons systems from great powers to mitigate its defense concerns, it has given up its role to sensitize world public opinion as to the impacts of proliferation of arms and ammunitions on the global population and the environment.