A pre-history of Indian foreign policy

Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War is a brilliant synthesis of the history of India’s struggle for independence and the history of World War II. In most versions of the story of how India finally became independent in 1947, the impact of World War II tends to be underplayed. Conversely, in most histories of World War II, India’s role in it tends to be underplayed. What Raghavan does in India’s War is to bring these two histories together. That alone makes this an important book – a contribution to an emerging global history that simultaneously connects and challenges Western narratives centred on the war and non-Western narratives centred on decolonisation. But it seems to me that India’s War is also more than that. It can be seen as a kind of pre-history of India’s post-independence foreign policy. As such, it illuminates not just the past but the present and the future.

The reason for this is that Raghavan sees India not just as a resource, a theatre, and a problem during World War II, but also as an actor. It was, as Raghavan puts it, “a significant power in its own right” that had a “sub-imperial system of its own” and “a sphere of influence that stretched from Hong Kong and Singapore to Malaya and Burma, Tibet and Xinjiang, Afghanistan and southern Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, Aden and East Africa”. India had its own interests that were distinct from those of Britain, in particular in the Middle East and South-east Asia, which formed a “security glacis”. India also had the capacity to act independently to pursue these distinct interests – Raghavan argues that “in many ways India exercised greater freedom in its external relations than the Dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa”. In short, Raghavan restores agency to India.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is the financial relationship between London and Delhi. Raghavan describes how, in order to pay India for its contribution to the war, Britain credited an Indian government account in London with the sterling equivalent of its expenditure. Thus during the war India accumulated huge sterling balances, which led to a “remarkable transformation” in the financial relationship between Britain and India. Before the war, India had owed Britain £360 million. By the end of the war, however, Britain owed India £1,321 million. We are familiar with Britain’s vast debt to the United States at the end of World War II. But Raghavan shows that the war also transformed India’s relationship with Britain from that of a debtor to a creditor. Thus “the economic rationale of the Indian empire, if ever there was one, evaporated in the white heat of war”, he writes.

By going back to the “strategic profile” of India under British rule, India’s War gives us clues about the future – or at least a possible future. This is an argument that has been made by C. Raja Mohan, who has gone so far as to predict that in future India could – and indeed should – “behave like the Raj”. He argues that, after decades of amnesia about the role it played in Asia security under British rule, India has now “internalized the strategic logic that had driven the Raj’s policies in the Indian Ocean” and has goals that are somewhat “analogous to those of Britain east of the Suez in the 19th century”. In particular, in partnership with the United States, India could return to the role of security provider in Asia that it once played under British rule. In short, he argues, we may in future see something like “the return of the Raj”.

In a way, this situation – that is, a strategic history that may now be re-emerging after a long interlude – reminds me of Germany. Like India, Germany experienced a radical break after the end of World War II – what became known as “zero hour”. The country was divided and a new state, with a new constitution and political system, was created. The Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of India also found themselves in an entirely new strategic situation and were thus constrained in the decades that followed. Thus Raghavan writes that “India’s strategic horizons narrowed to its immediate borders” and it was unable to exert any real influence in what had previously been its sphere of influence. However, the end of the Cold War changed the parameters. In this new context, India could, as Raghavan puts it, “revert to its older role as the ‘pivot’ of Asian security”.

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