Foreign Policy of Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi is often described as a practitioner of realpolitik for her expedient, unprincipled and ruthless pursuit of power. Here is a brief backgrounder to circumstances that shaped Indira’s Foreign Policy.

External Environment

When she became PM in 1966, world was bipolar. She had to face an intimidating global environment in which New Delhi occupied a relatively low position among regional powers. In 1962, the US and USSR had narrowly avoided nuclear conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A hotline had been established between the two powers to enable instant communication between top decision makers in the two countries. This was followed by attempts to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict by banning atmospheric tests, negotiating arms control agreements and drafting NPT in 1968 to prevent other countries from producing nuclear weapons.

Unable to reap dividends of 1965

The two super powers also had a tacit agreement to contain any regional conflict between their actual or potential sphere of influence countries. This was evident from the quick ceasefire imposed by UNFC following India-Pakistan conflict in 1965. India was not permitted to reap benefits of its military victory in 1965 because mediation by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at Tashkent between India’s Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan’s military President Ayub Khan had restored the territorial status quo ante bellum. Not only this, both USSR and USA demonstrated their respective intentions to assist Pakistan achieve somewhat military parity with India through arms transfer. This causes utter dismay in India and forced India to come out of the illusionary idealism and take path of realism in world politics.

Unfavourable environment at Home

Indira faced even more unfavourable environment at home. Congress was faction ridden and losing popular support rapidly, it was evident from 1967 elections. Country faced continuous drought and near-famine conditions. India was totally dependent on grain imports from US on concessional rupee payments. Shastri had already negotiated financial assistance from World Bank and IMF. In 1966, Indira had to devalue the Indian Rupee and this resulted in public outrage. Initially, Gandhi was considered weak and malleable by her own party leaders and thus she had deep seated feelings of insecurity and isolation.

Taking the domestic challenges head on

Despite of too much unfavourable environment both at home and abroad, the way Indira handled them to her own authority justifies her to be a realist. At home, she used the occasion of election of a new President after the death of Dr Zakir Hussain in 1969 to split the party by backing VV Giri against the establishment nominee Sanjeeva Reddy. She won in this venture. Then, she adopted the leftist economic policies, beginning with nationalization of banks. This grew her popularity and consolidated power of Congress. She gradually concentrated her power in Congress as well as all institutions of governance.

The Rawalpindi-Beijing-Washington nexus

In foreign affairs, she made her first state visit as PM of an economically strapped country to Washington in March 1966. She was able to get support of United States in transfer of new farm technology and hybrid seeds to usher India into Green Revolution. She was also able to garner US support in shipment of food grains to India in so called “Ship to Mouth” operations.

However, she denied toeing the United States line and modifying Indian policies in US interest. She criticised US policies in Vietnam and enraged US by issuing a joint communiqué from Moscow in 1966 titled “imperialists in South East Asia”. This distanced US from India but United States did not suspend food grain shipments. In 1967, United States announced a new arms policy and suspended military supply to both India and Pakistan. This was a diplomatic victory in some sense for Indira.

Similarly, Moscow also had underestimated her initially. In 1968, Russian premier visited Pakistan and promised military and economic assistance to that country. Gandhi did not join the public outcry against it but when in 1969, Chinese and Soviet forces clashed along their border, New Delhi maintained a deep silence, which evoked USSR’s public pledge of support for India in case of any external attack and offered a comprehensive security agreement. In August 1971, India and USSR signed the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.

This treaty resulted in growing US-China cooperation, American pressure and the increased support of US President Nixon to Pakistan giving India apprehensions of emerging Rawalpindi-Beijing-Washington nexus. Nixon lifted the arms embargo from Pakistan and supported the actions of eastern wing of Pakistan’s army amounting to death, genocide, rapes and large scale massacres in East Pakistan.

Indo-Pakistan War 1971 and birth of Bangaldesh

These circumstances led to an influx of around 1 crore people from East Pakistan to India and a full-scale civil war. When Gandhi was forced to prepare a policy to deal with the new circumstance, she took cautious and incremental decisions. Nothing in her actions indicated a strategy to dismember Pakistan’s part from it; though US criticised India for muddling with internal affairs of Pakistan. Further, adopting the Gunboat diplomacy, Nixon conspicuously displayed the military power in Bay of Bengal by sending US 7th Fleet to Bay of Bengal Area. The Nixon administration ordered for a complete blockage of economic, humanitarian and military aid to India.

But the war changed the scenario. Pakistan Air force attacked on India on 3 December 1971 under Operation Chengiz Khan. It struck 11 airbases in India. The war lasted 13 days and on 16 December 1971, the allied forces of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini defeated the West Pakistani forces deployed in the East. The resulting surrender of 78000 Pakistan Army soldiers and paramilitary personnel and some 12000 civilians was the largest in number of prisoners of war since World War II. However, creation of Bangladesh brought enormous cost for India. India had to look after the refugees, prevent the outbreak of epidemics, prevent refugees to mix / melt into the Indian population.

Changes strategic environment of South Asia

The birth of Bangladesh changed the strategic environment now. India had emerged as a major power in the South Asia. The US policy of keeping Pakistan and India at equal status was shocked and the relationships became bitter. Nevertheless, in 1973 the United States effectively wrote off India’s huge debt accruing from food grain imports. Indira Gandhi swiftly withdrew forces from Bangladesh and signed a long term treaty of peace and friendship with Mujibur Rahman government and extended generous economic assistance to Bangladesh. However, in 1975, a bloody coup at Dhaka gave set back to India’s relations with Bangladesh.

Shimla Agreement

Shortly after victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi embarked on the more challenging task of restoring peace with Pakistan. While Gandhi wanted a final solution of the Kashmir issue; Bhutto aimed at getting back the 93,000 prisoners of war and 5,000 square kilometres of his country’s territory under Indian possession. However, this agreement failed to put harsh and punitive provisions on Pakistan and failed to resolve the Kashmir Issue.

Relations with Sri Lanka

Initially, Gandhi’s relations with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike were cordial. To save her government from a political disaster, India ceded the island of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. However, relationships soured when Sri Lanka moved away from socialism under Junius Jayewardene. While Gandhi called him a western puppet, Sri Lanka alleged India for fanning Tamil Nationalism and supporting LTTE militants.

Relations with Pakistan under Haq

Despite Shimla accord, India’s relations with Pakistan remained strained. When India conducted nuclear tests in 1974, Pakistan called it an act of intimidation. But nevertheless, both countries decided to reopen diplomatic establishments in 1978. But soon, Pakistan came under military rule and its relations reached to nadir during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. Pakistan gave support to Khalistan militants. There was Siachen conflict also in which India emerged winner.

Assessment of Indira’s Foreign Policy

Indira’s regime was a landmark period for India’s foreign policy resulting into India’s establishment as regional power in South Asia. Some of the major successes in her foreign policy include creation of Bangladesh (1971) and the assertion of dominance of Indian power in South Asia; normalisation of relations with Pakistan via Shimla Agreement (1972); improving relations with China; boundary and sea zone pacts with Sri Lanka (1974& 1976); with Indonesia (1974) and Bangladesh (1974 by solving Berubari union issue); friendship with Iran; merger of Sikkim as 22nd state of Indian Union (1975); sturdy nuclear policy and nuclear test. However, she did not meet with desired success in her pro-Arab policy, antagonism of ASEAN and snubbed an important power Japan during her period.

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