One Who Understood Realpolitik

Reassessment of Patel

Continued from “One Who Forged India’s Steel Frame”

It would perhaps be facetious to guess which country’s historical experience persuaded George Santatayana − the American essayist-philosopher (who always carried a valid Spanish passport to establish his descent from the civilized word) − to say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It won’t, I reckon be too much off the mark to suggest that he might have had the Indian history in mind when he penned this oft-quoted aphorism in The Life of Reason. Unique indeed are we as a people who stubbornly refused to learn a thing from a dreadful past of repeated invasions by marauders and adventurers and the humiliations they heaped on us. It started with Alexander and merrily continued for over two millennia till the British managed to establish their supremacy in mid-nineteenth century.

Since our Independence − accompanied by the trauma of partition – we have had three inconclusive wars with our neighbour Pakistan (in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971) and one with China in 1962, and stand imperilled, today, by the expansionist designs of the Chinese in their bid to reduce us to a role in South Asian region alone and thereafter emerge as a world power that the USA has to reckon with.

Series of Muslim Invasions

Ours is a chequered history of a series of invasions from the North-West. It began in 327 BC with the foray of Alexander, the Great into Punjab. King Ambhi, the then ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city to Alexander. Thereafter, with occasional lulls, the wave of invasions intensified after the rise of Islam in the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. A systematic beginning was the victory of Bin Qasim’s armies that defeated Raja Dahir in Sindh in 712 A. D.

School children get introduced to the dismal fact how invader after invader came and conquered the kingdoms of northern India. How, for instance, Mahmud of Ghazni launched in the early 11th century as many as seventeen expeditions into South Asia. In 1001, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni defeated Raja Jayapala of the Hindu Shahi dynasty of Gandhara. The gory expeditions of Shahab-ud-Din Muhammad Ghori are a part of the folklore: how in 1191, he invaded the territory of Prithviraj of Ajmer, who ruled much of present-day Rajasthan and Punjab, but was defeated at Tarain by Govindraj of Delhi, Prithviraj’s vassal. The following year, he again invaded India. Muhammad’s army met Prithviraj’s army again at Tarain, and this time Muhammad Bin Sam won; Prithviraj was captured and Muhammad Bin Sam advanced onto Delhi. Within a year, Muhammad controlled Northern Rajasthan and Northern Ganges-Yamuna Doab.

Muhammad’s successors established the first dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. Subsequently, several Turko-Afghan dynasties ruled from Delhi: the Mamluk (1206–1290), the Khalji (1290–1320), the Tughlaq (1320–1414), the Sayyid (1414–51), and the Lodhi’s (1451–1526). Muslim Kings extended their domains into Southern India. Only the kingdom of Vijayanagar resisted until falling to the Deccan Sultanate in 1565. Certain kingdoms remained independent of Delhi such as the larger kingdoms of Punjab, Rajasthan, parts of the Deccan, Gujarat, Malwa (central India), and Bengal, nevertheless all of the area in present-day Pakistan came under the rule of Delhi.

That was not the end. Timur was able to continue his relentless approach to Delhi, arriving in 1398 to combat the armies of Sultan Mehmud, already weakened by an ever-present attribute of internal battle for ascension within the royal family.

How the Sultan’s army was easily defeated on 17 December, 1398 is a black day in Indian history. Timur entered Delhi and it was ruthlessly sacked, destroyed, and left in ruins. Before the battle for Delhi, Timur executed more than 100,000 Hindu captives.

One after Another

Then came the Mughals who ruled from 1526 till (at least theoretically, 1858) when Bahadur Shah Zafar, more adept in Urdu poetry than statecraft, was deported to Rangoon.

Even the Mughals grew indifferent to the defense of their borders. The decay of the Mughal power saw a series of invasions by the Persian adventurer, Nadir Shah. Following his death, his Royal Guardsman Ahmed Shah Abdali – a Pashtun – embarked on an invasion of conquest. The high point of his advances was his victory over the powerful Marathas in the third Battle of Panipat 1761.

The Muslim invaders abused the helplessness of the Indian rulers. For instance, the prestigious centre of learning like the Nalanda University was completely destroyed by Afghan Khilji-Ghilzai Muslims under Bakhtiyar Khalji . A library containing lakhs of books and manuscripts was set ablaze. The smoldering fire continued for months.

I’ve mentioned the above facts only to highlight the fact that despite one invasion after another there was no attempt whatever to build a line of fortification or enter into a defense arrangement to withhold future onslaughts.

Which other country in the world has had such a blinkered view of historical experience?

Making a New Beginning

Every nation has the wound of its history to lick − wounds both inflicted in its clashes with others and, more poignantly, self-inflicted wounds. Do these wounds get healed or continue to fester for ever? Even if healed, they leave their deep scars behind as reminders of how and when they occurred.

Can the world forget that European prosperity was possible − the Norwegians are possibly the only exception − by plundering the planet, most of all by the wily Brits. Americans can’t wish away their responsibility for cruel genocide of the indigenous people whom they exterminated ruthlessly to snatch their land. They cannot, also, turn their backs on systematically fostering the institution of slavery and prospering thereby.

However, every country does a drastic course correction some time or the other in its history. In China for instance the idea of building the Great Wall to ward off northern invasions was revived again during the Ming Dynasty following the Ming army’s defeat by the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu in 1449.

The Ming rulers had failed to gain a clear upper-hand over the Manchurian and Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the long-drawn conflict was taking a toll on the empire. The Ming rulers adopted a new strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out by constructing walls along the northern border of China. Unlike the earlier Qin fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger and more elaborate due to the use of bricks and stone instead of rammed earth. As Mongol raids continued periodically over the years, the Ming devoted considerable resources to repair and reinforce the walls. Sections near the Ming capital of Beijing were especially strong.

Take the Franco-German rivalry in European history. After the First World War, France built a line of defence to defend its border with Germany, called the Maginot Line, which was a vast fortification that spread along the French-German border. (It did prove ineffective against the German invasion because Hitler used blitzkrieg to overrun France but at least something had been planned to counter the German threat.)

What did we do in our history to counter recurring invasions?

There never was anything like “strategy” in our history. Isn’t it a sad fact that neither in Sanskrit nor in the Sanskrit-derived Indian languages, is there a word or term which can be deemed as equivalent of strategy? There are terms like “vyuha rachna” and “rana niti”, but they have more to deal with tactics rather than strategy.

Aren’t we a civilization and culture that is devoid of the sense of strategy? Isn’t it the explanation of invasion after invasion in geo-political history of the sub-continent? The only glimpse of strategy we see, is in General Sam Manekshaw’s preparation of the 1971 Bangladesh operations. And since he succeeded, the First Family – always mortally afraid of a possible military take-over − made sure that his wings were clipped.

Nehru’s Self-delusions

Jawaharlal Nehru always thought himself to be endowed with a world vision. Accordingly to him, most (if not all) of his colleagues in the Government were parochial in their perspectives. How could he relate to any one of them?, complained his supposedly brilliant self-educated sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit. No wonder, he reserved for himself the portfolio of external affairs both in the interim Government and in all the Governments that he headed after independence till his death. After all, as the author of Glimpses of World History he had reasons to believe that he alone, in his Government, could grasp the historical forces at work when Western imperialism was on the retreat and new nation states were emerging in Asia with different agendas. It is a pity, however, that despite all his so-called progressive instincts, Nehru completely misjudged the implications of the rise of Communist China in world affairs.

Patel’s grasp of international events, on the other hand, was imbued with a down-to-earth orientation now fashionably described as realpolitik. May I say a word or two about two contrasting views that govern nations in their dealings with each other?


Realpolitik is a German term which implies notions of being “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual” rather than idealistic in one’s preconceptions in the understanding and shaping of political policies and programmes. It is based on the use of power guided by practical considerations rather than ideological notions or high moral or ethical premises. It operates in the world of realism and pragmatism. Being ruthlessly realistic and practical at times the term realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively in the sense being utterly amoral.

In the American practice, it is often thought to be a game of power politics which, for instance, shaped the US policy towards South American dictatorial regimes. In the European context its most famous advocate and practitioner was Otto von Bismarck, the First Chancellor (1862–1890) to Wilhelm I of the Kingdom of Prussia. He most uninhibitedly deployed realpolitik in his quest to achieve Prussian dominance in Germany and even engineered wars if necessary to attain his goals. An oft-cited example of Bismarck’s realpolitik was Prussia’s seemingly illogical move of not demanding territory from a defeated Austria, a move that later led to the unification of Germany.

Perhaps the most famous example of realpolitik is Adolf Hitler’s attempt to obtain a predominantly German region of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland in 1938.

It was the British historian E. H. Carr who described how realism is the acceptance of what exists is right, and the belief that there is no reality or forces outside history such as divine will at work. He argued that in realism there is no moral dimension, and that what is successful is right, and what is unsuccessful is wrong.

The policy of realpolitik was formally introduced to the Richard Nixon White House by Henry Kissinger − incidentally of German descent. In practical terms it meant dealing with other powerful nations in a practical manner rather than on the basis of political doctrine or ethics − for example, Nixon’s diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China, despite U.S. opposition to communism and the previous doctrine of containment. He was, for instance, unconcerned with the right and wrong of what Gen Yahya was doing in 1971 in the then Eastern Pakistan. Instead, he used the opportunity to visit Pakistan to secretly build bridges with Communist China, a country that the US had fought against in the Korean War.

Realpolitik is distinct from ideological politics in that it is not dictated by a fixed set of rules, but instead tends to be goal-oriented, limited only by practical exigencies. Since realpolitik is ordered toward the most practical means of securing national interests, it can often entail compromising on ideological principles. For example, during the Cold War, the United States often supported authoritarian regimes that were violators of human rights, in order to theoretically secure the greater national interest of regional stability.

Patel’s Approach

Sardar Patel was not a practitioner of realpolitik the way Bismark was or later, Kissinger. He was a visionary but un-blinkered by romantic vision. He was practical and ruthlessly down-to-earth implementer of his action plans. He had, for instance, learnt from India's Political Officer in Sikkim how the Chinese had distributed thousands of copies of a map where Tibet and China were shown as the palm of a human hand, and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (as the present Arunachal Pradesh was then known) as its five fingers. His stand, therefore, was unequivocal: “We shouldn’t fail to arm ourselves to safeguard our frontiers whatever it may cost the nation.”

Nehru, on the other hand, was unflinching in his belief that India had nothing to fear from the Chinese. He remained cocooned in this illusion till events proved how woefully wrong he was in his perceptions of the Communist China. Finally, came the 1962 aggression which shattered once for all − alas, far too late! − the roseate world view of the Prime Minister. As his otherwise-sympathetic biographer S Gopal notes:

He (Nehru) now conceded, in words which have been often quoted by his critics, that ‘we were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world, and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation. We have been shocked out of it, all of us, whether it is the Government or the people; some might have felt it less and some more’ (Italics added)

A bitterly disillusioned Nehru’s comment was: “How I worked for friendship between India and China, fought for China’s legitimate interests in the world - and aggression was my reward”! Indeed the reward could have been different − both his and India’s − had Nehru cared to listen to and consider a point of view other than his idée fixe.


Nehru’s distinctive contribution to India’s foreign policy was the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It is still being debated whether it served well the interests of its founding members − India, Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana and Yugoslavia − well in putting their views in the global arena or simply held a nuisance value when its membership grew to more than a hundred at one time. A former Foreign Secretary of India, Krishnan Srinivasan, has attempted in a recent study Diplomatic Channels to see the movement from an Indian perspective. He states that “after Nehru’s death stripped away its idealism, it was, shorn of the bombast, a strategy first of realism and later of opportunism”. He also says that “India’s definite tilt towards the Soviet Union for reasons of practicality from 1964 to 1984 was scarcely concealed by the facade of non-alignment”.

Nehru held utopian ideas of transforming the world political order and that these were loosely adumbrated in the “doctrine” of non-alignment. He had a propensity to equate imperialism with capitalism, and this led him to develop a bias against the U.S. Nehru was a socialist and so the socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union was always his preference. This made Nehru neglect Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s offer in April 1959 for joint defence of the subcontinent against any Chinese threat, he claims.

Interestingly, before 1954, India was almost alone outside the communist bloc in championing the entry of China into the United Nations. Nehru held a rather romanticised view of China, an approach that signified more the triumph of wishful thinking than any consideration of strategic thinking.

The African countries appreciated India as the leader against colonialism and racism, but when it came to India’s national interest, particularly during its conflicts with China or Pakistan, Africa always tended to be hesitant and self-consciously neutral. As V.K. Krishna Menon prescribed “a non-aligned nation must be non-aligned with the non-aligned to be truly non-aligned” was vindicated when only two countries of the Non-Aligned Conference of 1961, Cyprus and Ethiopia, supported India against China.

Unheeded Warning

It is pertinent here to note Patel’s warning to Nehru as early as June 1949, when he wrote to the Prime Minister: “I anticipate that as soon as the Communists have established themselves in the rest of China, they will try to destroy its (Tibet’s) autonomous existence”. Needless to add, this eminently sane warning had no effect on Nehru’s formulation of India’s policy towards Tibet. The Prime Minister thought that he alone could decipher world developments and knew where lay India’s interests.

There was another opportunity when Nehru could take his blinkers off. In a Cabinet meeting in November 1950 to discuss India’s policy towards Tibet, Nehru’s colleagues tried to dent his perception that the Himalayas were the impregnable fortress as the popular folklore had it. KM Munshi reminded Nehru how in the seventh century Tibetan invaders had attacked Kanauj from across the borders. Nehru was, as usual, dismissive about any view that ran counter to his thinking. The man’s problem was his enormously bloated ego.

After that fateful meeting Patel wrote to Nehru that famous letter on November 7, 1950, in which he penned the prophetic warning about China’s intentions. Had the egregiously self-opinionated Nehru cared to think through Patel’s warning, India’s history would have taken a different course.

Continued to “One Who Warned the Ostrich About Looming Dangers Ahead”

Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3538      Comments: 4

Comment ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ actually needs to be re-interpreted as ‘those who do not learn from the memory of the past…’ to make any sense, for who cannot remember the past? This applies to your view on Indians needing to learn from history, not that they do not remember it.

But as a corollary to my last comment, I ask you to view the advanced state of democracy in the west, the US and Britain, and European Unity (EU) countries, and by recent diffusion into Russia, to see a nationhood comprised of multi-ethnicity in its population; white, black and every shade between; not only that, of ethnic groups that retain their cultural and religious identity, such as the West Indians and Muslims and Indians, the Ukrainians and Portuguese, the Greeks and the Turkish, who yet conform to the laws of these western democratic nations, whichever they may be settled in, with an equal fervour to the original ethnic stock. This they do with the firm conviction that despite their differences, they share an equal destiny as a nation, for example, as British. This experience tends to a conviction of the equality of all men, a universal dimension, which I myself confess to have been educated to in my experience of life in Britain. One competes with yet respects the abilities of other ethnic types, who by the second generation have become British types, by extension, citizens of a world of fellow human beings. Thus, in a crisis, one can respond to the needs of people in areas all over the globe.
This humanitarian quality becomes the hallmark of a democratic spirit.

And then I ask you to view the narrow ethnic based democracies of the East, India among these, and consider if the concept of democracy based on ethnicity alone has any real basis in the modern world. For Asian countries generally, there appear to be two rules: one, that they can expect to be treated as equal citizens in the West when they choose or are able to emigrate; but in their own ‘home’ countries, the rule becomes citizenship by ethnicity; and, ironically, with the helpless admission that that is ‘the way things are back home’; where corruption is rife due to the exploitation of this backward homely mentality.

Indian national identity must be established on principles of humanity, a recognition of all men, primarily in the guise of its own people, as equal, as it has striven to be, in all fairness, since independence; and not on the mere fact of having an ancestry, which a romanticising of the past, even as a fiction of a united people plagued by foreign invasion, tends to foster. The fulfilment of democracy is in principles of humanity, here and now. Preach this, not history.

25-Nov-2013 22:02 PM

Comment Dear Sir,

A person, a family, society and a nation... fail to learn from history when they do not accept the history.

India seems to be disowning the historical facts that you mentioned in this article so beautifully. These incidents are not taught to kids in schools, they do not find mentions in mainstream media, they are not spoken by politicians and public figures, they are not discussed in public forums on television or newspapers... probably, in the name of "secularism" and for the sake of not opening up debate on Nehru's blunders.

We must own it and feel it to learn from it, instead the efforts are put to ignore it.

Thanks for highlighting it here.

Dinesh kumar Bohre
25-Nov-2013 09:46 AM

Comment Two cocks were squaring at each other when a fox approached. They looked at the fox and realized the danger at hand. But, their will to fight each other was instinctive and prevailed. They fiercely fought each other while the fox witnessed the debacle. One was killed while the other one severely wounded. The fox easily claimed them both and walked away.

Swami Vivekananda once said that if you put three Indians together, they will never agree on anything. The concept of nationhood is historically foreign to us. If we understood realpolitik, we would appreciate nationhood and need to coalesce into a strong unified nation. Typically for this to happen (as it did during the Maurya and Gupta empires) a strong leader has to emerge with the vision and strategy to create a nation. Nehru did emerge as a strong leader but failed us with his misguided and idealistic vision and strategy. We have had a void of leadership in India for some time now. We need one to lead us toward a unified nation with firmly grounded realpolitik approach to make us strong and proud of ourselves. One who places national interests and nationhood first and above all and dismisses selfishly motivated divisive strategies.

As usual, Dr. Bali, it is a pleasure and a learning experience to read your articles. Thank you.

24-Nov-2013 10:05 AM

Comment An excellent article.
The present day Government of India is busy fighting scam after scam, and has little time or energy to think about the future of the country.
How beneficial for the country if Digvijay Singh, Kapal Sibal, Sonia Gandhi and others thought about the country's future instead of their own political perpetuity.

23-Nov-2013 17:12 PM

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