Nehru and the Superpowers: India’s Influence in the Cold War

Graduate Center Professor Manu BhagavanManu Bhagavan

A new collection of essays, India and the Cold War, edited by Professor Manu Bhagavan (GC/Hunter, History), explores India’s overlooked role in the Cold War. Bhagavan spoke to The Graduate Center about the book, the inspiration he draws from CUNY, and his next project: an intriguing biography of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Madam Pandit, a diplomat and “woman of many firsts.”

The Graduate Center: What was India’s role during the Cold War?

Bhagavan: India was not just on the receiving end of superpower machinations but was, in fact, an actor in its own right that negotiated spaces between the two power poles to chart its own independent path.  The book shows how a newly decolonized country with little economic or military power nonetheless played a key role in global affairs during the Cold War, exerting influence through diplomacy, strategic public relations, poetic imagination, and its own internal development choices.

Through the actions of its charismatic prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was backlit by the fading halo of Mahatma Gandhi, the country positioned itself between the U.S. and Soviet blocs and created a diplomatic backchannel to address explosive disagreements, as with the Korean War.  It tried to harmonize the divergent views of East and West and show by its own actions that co-existence was possible.  It achieved some notable successes, but also failed to accurately assess the impact and reception of some of its choices, leading ultimately to a surprise conflict with China.

GC: How does India’s place in the world today compare?

Bhagavan: India is now one of the world’s largest economies. It is confident and assertive, and eager to assume what it considers to be its rightful mantle as a Great Power.  But to what end?  India today has yet to lay out a clear strategic vision for itself and for the world it wants to see.  It also appears to have grown comfortable with the widening gap between high-minded, inclusive speeches aimed at global audiences and exclusivist policies at home that have led to an increasingly polarized society. What the country managed to achieve (in the Cold War era), it has not ever since, and therein lies the primary lesson for those who wish to see present-day India achieve greatness tomorrow.
GC: Talk about your work at CUNY.

Bhagavan: I am so proud to be part of an institution where the core mission is to deliver the highest quality education to all the people, that focuses on access and equity as well as achievement.  Hunter is one of the most diverse schools in the country, with a large number of first-generation college students.  At the undergraduate level, I lecture on world history and modern South Asian history, and teach upper-division classes focused on India.  It is always amazing to me, and exciting, to teach a class and to look out on a sea of faces representing nearly every corner of the globe, each with unique perspectives and special insights on what we are talking about.  I learn so much from our students.  At the graduate level, at both Hunter and The Graduate Center, I teach classes on human rights and internationalism, and am interested in supervising Ph.D. students in areas broadly related to India, diplomatic history and foreign affairs, and human rights.
GC: What’s your next project?

Bhagavan: I am writing a biography of Madam Pandit, Nehru’s sister, and a woman of many firsts: first woman celebrity diplomat in the world; one of the first women cabinet ministers in the British Empire; India’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union; India’s first woman ambassador to the U.S.; first woman president of the U.N. General Assembly. She was also a high commissioner to London. She was very influential through all of these things, a headline maker, and well known throughout the U.S., where she was lauded by everyday people as well as the New York elite. Her story is the story of India in the 20th century: She was born in 1900, died in 1990. And she’s like Forrest Gump. She’s literally everywhere. She meets Kaiser Wilhelm when she’s 5 years old, she knows the king and queen of England, she was once arrested on suspicion of an assassination attempt on Mussolini, and she told Kennedy not to go to Dallas.


Submitted on: OCT 4, 2019

Category: Faculty | General GC News | History