The Failure of India’s “Strategic Autonomy”

10 June 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


The Non-Aligned Movement came into being in the aftermath of the Asian-African Conference, which was held in Bandung, Indonesia, from 18-24 April 1955. Twenty-nine leaders of ex-colonial countries gathered for that conference to devise and pursue strategies that would benefit their countries singly and collectively. Among them were Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia. True to the name of the Movement, Article 6(A) of the “Ten Principles of Bandung” stated that member countries would adhere to the ‘Non-use of collective defence pacts to benefit the specific interests of any of the great powers’. They would, in other words, not align themselves with either of the great powers which were by then engaged in the Cold War of competing ideologies.

That was not quite the case with India. It turned increasingly towards the Soviet Union, first as a security partner and then also for trade, for several reasons. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and recognising that its successor state, Russia, was preoccupied with its failing economy, India opened up its economy. That strategy brought it increasingly into contact with the United States. The India-US relationship thawed quickly and even warmed to the extent that Washington is now a major supplier of India’s defence systems and around a million Indian professionals work in the US information technology sector.

New Delhi’s break with the Soviet model grew when Mr Modi scrapped the Five-Year Plans that it had long followed. India’s strategy of non-alignment, which was uncertain during its dalliance with the Soviet Union, was also cast aside in its headlong rush to develop its economy. That perception was strengthened by India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, who said that the country was no longer non-aligned.


Or so it seemed. Mr Modi has not truly hidden his disdain for many (if not most) of Nehru’s principles or his sheer dislike of Mr Nehru’s family – his great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, and Rahul’s Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi. It came as no surprise, then, that Mr Modi did not participate in the two Non-Aligned Movement summits that have taken place since he was first elected in 2014 – in Venezuela in 2016 and in Azerbaijan in 2019, choosing instead to have the Vice-President represent India at them.

That situation has changed. Due in no small part to his embrace of Hindu nationalism (known in India as Hindutva), which is commonly perceived to have underpinned his abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, thereby allowing all Indians in Hindu-majority India to work and live in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, and his decision to force the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provided automatic citizenship to Hindu and other refugees, but not Muslims, from neighbouring countries, Mr Modi has faced much international criticism, including from the US. It was fortuitous that a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement Contact Group was scheduled for 4 May this year. Mr Modi took part in the video-conference, declaring the Movement to be the “world’s moral voice” and emphasising India’s democratic foundations. It was necessary that he attend the conference, albeit virtually, in order to counter the criticism that he faced from abroad. The Non-Aligned Movement, it would appear, still has its uses.

It would, nevertheless, not do for him to be seen to adopt a policy that had been implemented by an ideological rival, even if the latter preceded his government by several decades. He has fallen back, therefore, on his own policy of “strategic autonomy”. Strategic autonomy, as a major Indian research institute defines it, is ‘the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being constrained in any manner by other states.’ Noting, however, that India can be and is, in fact, influenced by other states, it adds that:

Regional powers like India are destined to be even less strategically autonomous. While they may express the aspiration to be strategically autonomous, their ability and willingness to practice it are likely to be inconsistent and variable.

In other words, Mr Modi’s strategic autonomy is non-alignment dressed up sufficiently to allow him to say that it isn’t Mr Nehru’s non-alignment.

Whatever the case may be, China’s recent incursions into Indian territory – these are the latest of many since 1962 – have forced Mr Modi into a tight spot. New Delhi is in no position to consider conflict with China, let alone a full-fledged war. It is true that, should a war take place, India would likely fight China to a standstill, but the economic, military and political costs that it would bear would be greater than those that China would suffer. Mr Modi would then be left with two options: to adopt a pragmatic view and align India with a Sino-Russian alliance or associate India with a US-led camp. India, lacking the economic or military power to truly exercise strategic autonomy, would be left in virtually the same situation in which it found itself after 1962 when it aligned itself with the Soviet Union in all but name. Even if there is no confrontation with China, international events are racing towards a second Cold War and Mr Modi will find himself forced to choose between two sides.

Mr Modi’s strategic autonomy is non-existent in reality or a failure at best.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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