After gaining its independence in 1947, India fought to preserve its hard-won sovereignty, as the Cold War dawned, by adhering to the mantra of "swadeshi," or self-sufficiency, advocated by the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Imbibing this ideal in his vision for India, Nehru constructed a socialist economy in the Soviet style and adopted a worldview that aligned with Moscow's. (At the same time, Washington cultivated ties with India's upstart regional rival, Pakistan.) But despite his shared interests with the Soviet Union, Nehru wanted to ensure that India gained an independent role abroad commensurate with its 5,000-year history as a mighty civilization. He thus adopted a policy of nonalignment, eschewing alliances with other nations in an effort to discourage colonialism while remaining relevant in global politics. New Delhi has honored that policy ever since, despite the fact that it is often at odds with India's need to make pacts with foreign partners.
In 1991, a balance-of-payments crisis forced India to ask the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan. The organization agreed, on the condition that New Delhi dismantle the License Raj, an elaborate system of licensing and red tape regulating the operation of Indian businesses. After it did, Indian growth jumped to 6.5 percent, and its trade-to-GDP ratio reached 43 percent by 2013, up from 14 percent in 1995. As India's long-closed economy began to open to the rest of the world, its politics followed. In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the only major power left to seek capital and technology from was the United States, and India began its slow tilt toward the West.
Twenty-five years later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be interested in cultivating that relationship. New Delhi is counting on Washington's support as it tries to increase its prominence in international institutions, including by gaining a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Building a defense relationship with the United States will be crucial to winning the backing of Washington, which views India as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism in South Asia. But strengthening its U.S. ties will be difficult for India as long as Nehru's legacy still endures.
Of course, India's refusal to enter into alliances does not mean that its interpretation of Nehru's policy is not changing. Modi, for instance, has never used the term "nonalignment" in his speeches, and in August, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that "blocs and alliances are less relevant today." Half a century after his rule, Nehru's influence is still palpable in Indian foreign policy circles. But his strictures on the formation of close ties with larger powers are beginning to soften, bit by bit, as India forges ahead in its quest for a leading role on the international stage.