Act East: Nehru’s Lesson for Modi

The torrent of praise and criticism directed at Lee Kuan Yew since his death the other week highlights a paradox: How could one man with a micro-state as his base leave such a decisive imprint on the whole of today’s Asia?

This paradox is sharpened even further when one considers that Lee was deeply influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding prime minister, who of course had a country of sub-continental proportions to work from. So why is Lee being celebrated as a founding father of modern Asia while Nehru’s memory continues to recede into the mists of history?

The answer says less about the leadership attributes of the two men than it does about the central dichotomy regarding India’s role in Asia – grand ambitions and high-minded sentiments, regularly hobbled by internal deficiencies and the lack of credible follow-up. This is a key lesson for New Delhi to absorb as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seeks to enhance India’s economic and security relevance in the region.

In 1989, Lee lauded Nehru as “one of Asia’s greatest revolutionaries.” He paid further tribute in a 2005 lecture in New Delhi in which he noted that he was part of “that generation of Asian nationalists who looked up to India's freedom struggle and its leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru,” and recalled his thrill as a student at Cambridge listening to Nehru’s iconic “Tryst with Destiny” radio address on the eve of Indian independence. He acknowledged that “Nehru's speeches resonated with me. I shared intellectual and emotional roots with Nehru because I had also experienced discrimination and subjugation under the British Raj and admired Nehru for his vision of a secular multiracial India.”

Indeed, it is particularly striking how much cachet Nehru and India had throughout Asia in the first decade after the end of the British Raj. Nehru confessed in his autobiography that as a young teenager he “dreamed of brave deeds” he would undertake in freeing India and Asia from “the thralldom of Europe.” As the moment of Indian independence approached, he began investing much energy in mobilizing pan-Asian regional solidarity.

In early 1947, for instance, he took the initiative in organizing the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, attended by over 200 delegates from 28 countries and colonies, for the purpose of laying the basis for a federation of Asian nations. There he confidently asserted that India would be “the compelling factor” in post-colonial Asia. He followed up two years by convening another regional forum championing Dutch de-colonization in Indonesia.

In August 1950, a New York Times editorial proclaimed that the emerging Cold War struggle in the region “conceivably could be won or lost in the mind of one man – Jawaharlal Nehru,” while the New York Herald Tribune opined six weeks later that “India’s title to leadership in the new Asia is unquestioned.”

Nehru was active in the diplomacy of the Korean War and New Delhi chaired the international commission overseeing prisoner exchanges at the conflict’s end. In early 1954, it took the lead in bringing together the so-called Colombo Powers focused on the escalating French effort to extend its colonial rule in Indo-China, and headed up the multilateral group that supervised the July 1954 Geneva Accords bringing that conflict to a close. India had a large hand in convening the April 1955 conference of 29 African and Asian states in Bandung, Indonesia that led to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement which gained prominence in global politics in the following decades.

But for a variety of reasons India’s influence in Asia began to fade sharply from the mid-1950s. One major factor was New Delhi’s disinclination to play the regional security role in Southeast Asia that the British Raj eagerly did. As a result, much of the area gravitated to U.S.-backed military alliances as the Cold War progressed. A further reason was that India’s defeat in its 1962 border war with China, along with the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, caused leaders in New Delhi to recast their focus closer to home.

Important, too, was the discordance between the export-oriented, high-growth economic systems that were widely adopted by some Asian countries in the 1960s and Nehruvian socialism’s inward-looking policies and “Hindu rate of growth.” As a consequence, trade and investment flows between the two remained quite modest until well into the 1990s even as the industrialization and economic development of previously-backward countries in East Asia took off.

Yet the most central cause was the yawning gap between promise and performance which has become a trademark of modern India. Far from the bold proclamations he issued less than a decade earlier at the Asian Relations Conference, Nehru confessed in 1954 that “I do not pretend to say that India, as she is, can make a vital difference to world affairs. So long as we have not solved most of our own problems, our voice cannot carry the weight that it normally will and should.”

Through its “Act East” initiative, Prime Minister Modi’s government has vowed to put new vigor in New Delhi’s outreach to the rest of Asia. Yet most critical to the long-term prospects of this endeavor is what happens inside India in the coming years. Much will turn on whether New Delhi is able to push the incomplete economic revolution launched in the early 1990s to its next level.

The success of “Act East” is tightly bound up in the ultimate fate of the “Make in India” campaign to establish India as a global manufacturing hub. Likewise key is the building up of modern, world-class infrastructure and resolving the perennial debate over the appropriate role of foreign equity investment in the country’s major economic sectors.

In his first year in office, Mr. Modi has made an impressive entrance upon the Asian leadership stage and his government is right to act on the economic and security opportunities that beckon in Asia. But it should be careful not to lose sight of the vital prerequisites at home or it will rue the same lesson that Nehru did.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and senior director of Geoskope, an intelligence company focused on emerging markets. He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.