The Anatomy of a Story Less Told: Nehru and the Balance of Power

Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
The Anatomy of a Story
Less Told: Nehru and
the Balance of Power
Nabarun Roy1
Nehru’s foreign policy is conventionally understood as being idealistic. However,
there are those who claim that Nehru was motivated by realist considera-
tions. Such a contrarian viewpoint is often made using the balance of power
lens. While some use this lens explicitly, others utilize it implicitly. This study
brings together such contrarian claims and tries to understand how they all ‘hang
together’. In order to do so, it creates an overall balance of power framework
within which scholarship arguing that Nehru was motivated by balance of power
considerations is situated. Such an exercise brings rigour and clarity to the
‘Nehru the realist’ argument and enables one to better understand the nature of
Nehru’s foreign policy.
Cold War, Nehru, Indian foreign policy, balance of power, idealism
In The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy, Andrew B. Kennedy notes
that on the question of whether Jawaharlal Nehru was an idealist or a realist,
‘scholars often stress the former…’ (Andrew, 2015, p. 92). This opinion persists
not only among scholars but also a large section of the Indian populace. Nehru’s
alleged idealism has also been used by politicians to put the Indian National
Congress—the party to which Nehru belonged—on the back foot. L. K. Advani
(2010), a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, pointed at this when he
Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New
Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Nabarun Roy, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University,
New Delhi, 110021, India.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(3) 337–358
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016670705
338 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(3)
referred to Nehru’s ‘unconcern’ regarding ‘India’s own strategic interests’.
Contemporary demands to conduct Indian foreign policy based on Realpolitik
considerations are made assuming that the foundational ethos of Indian foreign
policy, as laid down by Nehru, are incompatible with the harsh realities of inter-
national relations.
This ‘common sense’ view notwithstanding, some have argued that Nehru’s
foreign policy was either wholly realist in nature or a combination of realism and
idealism (Karnad, 2002; Paul & Nayar, 2003; Raghavan, 2010; Subrahmanyam,
1976; Thien, 1963). A subset of those advocating this contrarian viewpoint argue that
Nehru was an adherent of balance of power politics—he appreciated power
and manipulated it to further India’s national interest (Paul & Nayar, 2003;
Subrahmanyam, 1976; Thien, 1963). What is surprising is that despite being a less
popular characterization, quite a few prominent scholars such as K. Subrahmanyam—
regarded as the doyen of Indian strategic thinking—have posited that Nehru’s foreign
policy had clear elements of realism. What is even more striking is that hardly any
work has been done to bring this contrarian line of thought together in an organized
manner. A glance at the existing material reveals that while the balance of power lens
has often been applied to identify realist elements in Nehru’s foreign policy, it has
not always been done in a theoretically self-conscious way.
This article has two objectives. One, it brings together scholarship which claims
that Nehru’s foreign policy was driven by balance of power considerations as there
are enough such writings that can be placed alongside each other for analyzing
their points of intersection and separation. This study ascertains how these writings
on Nehru ‘hang together’, to borrow a term used by the physicist Edward Teller
(Ruggie, 2002, p. 1). Two, many who claim that Nehru was guided by the logic of
‘balance of power’ do not actually unpack the term. However, once one engages with
the theoretical aspect of the term, it becomes apparent that it has nuances. This article
situates existing scholarship within an explicit framework of the balance of power.
This not only adds rigour and clarity to the ‘Nehru the realist’ argument but it also
highlights those aspects of the balance of power logic that have been invoked by
students of Nehru’s foreign policy. It clearly illuminates the framework that is
used to argue that Nehru’s policies had elements of realism. Hence, this article
brings together the disparate scholarship on Nehru and the balance of power.
It also adds rigour and theoretical clarity to this line of inquiry. Rather than argue
that Nehru was indeed a realist, this article acknowledges that a substantial amount
has been written on ‘Nehru the realist’ by scholars through the balance of power
lens and therefore the need to organize such scholarship in a meaningful manner.
This will allow scholars to have a clearer grasp of the ‘Nehru the realist’ argument,
it will allow them to ask themselves if they are persuaded by this claim as more
archival material becomes available, and hence shed more light on the nature of
India’s foreign policy during Nehru’s time. The article shows how scholars have
sought to argue that Nehru and the balance of power are not mutually exclusive
and what frameworks they have applied in the process.
This article is divided into four parts. The first part introduces the reader to the
basic contours of the idealist–realist viewpoints regarding Nehru’s foreign policy
(Chaudhuri, 2014, pp. 5–6). If the idealist viewpoint is more prominent, what are
its basic elements? The reader is also introduced to the realist argument. Since the

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