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Remembering Nehru’s Visit To Soviet Union In 1955 – OpEd

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In the second week of July, Indian Prime Minister Modi is slated to visit Russia for the BRICS and SCO summit. He will also visit five central Asian republics on his way back home. This visit is expected to generate much required momentum in the Indo-Russian partnership. In this context, it would be instructive to take a closer look at another visit to Russia by another Prime Minister of India.

Sixty years ago, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the then Soviet Union in June 1955. He had been to Soviet Russia before as well. In 1927, Nehru with his father had gone to Soviet Russia to mark the Tenth anniversary celebrations of Bolshevik revolution. Young Nehru was then an upcoming leader of Indian National Congress and later became India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister. Nehru during 1930’s was known as an admirer of the Soviet experiment in lifting millions out of poverty and apathy, though he never approved their methods of doing so. He felt that many problems of independent India would be similar to what Soviets faced in the years after revolution.

Nehru had embarked on the visit to Soviet Russia keeping in mind specific international and domestic factors. By 1955, both important neighbors of India i.e. China and Pakistan were receiving massive assistance from the superpowers. Pakistan had joined the US led military pacts and China was receiving Soviet support. This situation was jeopardizing Indian security interests and India needed to take corrective measures. Domestically, India was well on its way in implementing its first five year plan (1951-56) successfully and was poised for second five year plan (1956-61) to accelerate the economic growth. Nehru’s Congress party was moving slowly but steadily towards the goals of establishing of socialist society in India. So, Indo-Soviet partnership was ideologically and geostrategically a sound step. Though Nehru’s 1955 visit did not result in any immediate gains for India, it brought long term strategic benefits over the period of time.

There are two incidents from Nehru’s visit which clearly stand out today. During the visit, Nehru gave a lecture in Moscow university which was attended by young Mikhail Gorbachev who thirty years later changed the course of world politics by his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika. As Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs, this lecture of Nehru left permanent mark on Gorbachev’s mind and he continued to admire Nehru throughout his life. Another interesting point of Nehru’s visit was Soviet offer for India to assume permanent seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Of course, Nehru turned down this offer and rather spoke for Communist China’s admission into the UNSC as a legitimate power.

Nehru’s visit was reciprocated by Soviet leaders in November of the same year when Khrushchev and Bulganin came to India. They were welcomed warmly everywhere they went, which was a new experience for the Soviet leaders. In this visit, Soviet leaders expressed support for India’s stance on Kashmir (which proved vital in Cold War years) and on Goa, still under Portuguese occupation. These two visits marked new beginnings in the Indo- Soviet ties. In the following decades, Soviet Union generously helped India in building its defense and industrial capabilities and dealing with crises like those of East Pakistan in 1971. Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India and Russia retained its close partnership in defense.

Nehru had already visited US, Britain and China by then. So, Soviet Union was the only great power he has not visited. In late 1940’s and early 1950’s Soviet Union did not regard India as an important player. But Soviet attitude began to change with the death of Stalin in 1953. Soviet leadership decided to engage newly emerging countries of Asia and Africa and engaging Nehru’s non aligned India would have seemed a logical first step in this direction as India was then leading the Afro-Asian nations as was demonstrated at Bandung conference of 1955. For India, it was imperative to find alternative sources of finance and technology for its rapid economic development as western assistance was coming with several strings attached one of which was to compromise on Kashmir.

Nehru’s 1955 visit and reshaping of geopolitics holds relevance even in 2015. Russia’s relations with the West are deteriorating steadily in the last two years resembling closely to the Cold War tensions of 1950’s. Worsening relations with the West has pushed Russia closer to China. In 1950’s it was ideology which brought China and Russia closer, now it is shared interests. In this emerging geopolitical setting, India has stakes in engaging in all three players. Its new government has so far engaged the West and China quite well. Now it’s time for Russia. Modi’s visit will be a good step in that direction.

*Sankalp Gurjar, Dept. of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences South Asian University (University established by SAARC Nations) Akbar Bhawan Campus, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, India.

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