Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Breakup of Soviet Union Leaves India Shaken

By Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. RudolphSusanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph are authors of "In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State." They are in India working on a new book and teach at the University of Chicago. / October 7, 1991



WE arrived in India in September, reeling under the impact of news from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Banner headlines, a revolution on TV. But in India the response was guarded, troubled, fearful. The United States celebrated; freedom had triumphed over tyranny. In India the mood was something like mourning; a dear friend had passed away.India's national press - sophisticated, cosmopolitan, full of lively editorial analysis - sees the world differently, and never more so than since Aug. 19. Americans saw the second Russian Revolution as the breaking out of freedom; Boris Yeltsin, the freedom fighter, courageously defied the tanks of totalitarianism. It was the end of a dark era, welcome even in the face of anxiety about who controls the nuclear warheads and whether chaos can be averted. Not so in Delhi. India's guarded media reaction to the coup, its ignominious failure, and the reverberating upheavals that followed reflect India's markedly different attitude toward the Soviet Union. India feels orphaned - ideologically, strategically, economically. The Soviet Union was not just India's friend and neighbor. Socialism, secularism, and democracy comprise the Congress Party's ideological trinity. Being progressive, on the cutting edge of historical change and on moral high ground, meant sy mpathy for - though not emulation of - the Bolshevik Revolution. India's ideological identity was intertwined with that of the Soviet Union. Jawaharlal Nehru thought he could industrialize India democratically by combining Soviet-style planning with parliamentary democracy. The Bolshevik Revolution purported to be anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, stands that appealed to Indian nationalists who had won independence from a British empire that circled the globe. After Nikita Khrushchev's 1955 visit, India began to rely on the Soviet Union's strategic support. The Soviets cast vetoes at the UN for India - when India used force to erase the remnants of Portugese colonialism and the Kashmir question appeared on the agenda. It supported India in wars with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The cold war spawned the nonaligned movement that gave India a world role and opened the way for Pakistan to challenge and the Soviet Union to support India's domin ant role in South Asia. And its nuclear arsenal helped India to avoid an overt answer to China and Pakistan. The Soviet Union was critical in India's economic calculations. One of the word's leading arms buyers in the 1980s, India acquired most of its arms from the Soviet Union at bargain basement rupee prices. India's protected and regulated economy fit well with the Soviet command economy. State trading in soft rupees and rubles linked the two economies. Centralized bureaucracies in Moscow cleared arms shipments. Which republics now control the arms plants? Where will the spares come from, and the hard curren cy to pay for them? Now that rupee-ruble trade is dead, how will India get and pay for its oil, news print and non-ferrous metals? During the 60 hours of President Gorbachev's "confinement," when the coup appeared to be succeeding, India's ambassador in Moscow observed that he "brought about the disintegration of the [Communist] party" and Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao that "Mr. Gorbachev's ouster was a warning to people who favored reforms without controls." After the coup failed, editorials spoke of Mr. Yeltsin's courage, praised the Soviet troops, and characterized Gorbachev's dismantling of the Communist Party as an advance in democracy. The government now welcomed "the reassertion of democratic values and a triumph for the will of the people." The socialist and social democratic presence in Congress and in the Janata Dal cheered what they saw as liberation. BUT some Indians are not cheering. Jyoti Basu, Bengal's veteran chief minister whose Communist Party has won three elections there, questioned perestroika, welcomed the coup, and deplored Gorbachev's repudiation of the Soviet Communist Party. Many Indians worry too about the precarious fate of multinational states. Only yesterday, a Europe that was learning how to share sovereignty seemed to be the wave of the future. The spillover effects of conflict in a collapsing multinational Soviet empire alarms Indians by questioning the viability of its own federal union. Secessionist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, and Assam seem more alarming as sovereignty-seeking republics grope for formulas to sustain shared goals and the authority of a center. Indian politicians, journalists, and intellectuals like to think of themselves as progressive, at the forefront of change, helping the world to see the way to a new and better world. Instead, they face the prospect that India may have lost its orienting vision. The collapse of the Soviet empire and of communism has left India's leaders ideologically and strategically adrift, aware that new realities call for new thinking but reluctant to believe that the world they have known and worked for was an illusi on. India may yet find ways to reformulate democratic socialism in ways that are compatible with market efficiency and its independent foreign policy in ways that contribute to an emerging world order.

Skip to next paragraph