“This is by far the most difficult and dangerous situation in international affairs we have faced since independence.” This line is from a letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to C Rajagopalachari in August 1956. Two weeks earlier, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had stunned the world by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. This crucial waterway had been managed by the Suez Canal Company — an entity in which the British government and French shareholders held the majority stake — and British strategists had since the 1870s been obsessed with the security of the canal.
Nehru felt that a showdown between Egypt and Britain was in the offing. He was right. Just over 10 weeks later, Israel in collusion with Britain and France launched a “spontaneous” attack on Egyptian Sinai, leading to Anglo-French intervention — ostensibly to “separate the combatants” but actually to seize the canal and destroy Nasser.
This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the war. However seriously India might have taken the conflict back then, there has hardly been a ripple of interest on this occasion. This is all the more striking given the enormous political capital that New Delhi invested in trying to resolve the Suez crisis.
For starters, it is worth recalling why India took such a grim view of the crisis brewing in West Asia. It stemmed from two strategic assumptions that underpinned Nehru’s foreign policy. The first was continuous with the view of the erstwhile British Raj that India had a major stake in the security of West Asia. The second was that India should not automatically align itself with any power bloc and that it should take an independent stance on major international issues. India’s policy of “non-alignment” was also taken up by a wider group of countries, including Egypt. The Suez crisis thus challenged both the foundational assumptions of Indian foreign policy.
India’s approach to the crisis was also complicated by the importance of its ties with Britain. In the wake of the alliance between the United States and Pakistan in 1954, Nehru believed that the Commonwealth connection with Britain was important — especially for military technology. Throughout the crisis, then, Nehru sought to avert a war in West Asia while preserving India’s ties with both Egypt and Britain. As he conceded to Rajagopalachari: “Probably we shall end by displeasing our friends on both sides.”
Nehru had, in fact, been blindsided by Nasser’s decision to nationalise the canal. He had met the Egyptian president along with Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia only a few weeks earlier and had no inkling that this was coming. From the outset, Nehru was clear that he would not uncritically support Nasser. Indeed, he regarded the latter’s moves as provocative even if justifiable. A week after the announcement, Nehru advised Nasser to convene an international conference — on the basis of Egypt’s sovereignty — of all interested parties. Nasser refused and, in turn, requested India to stay away from a conference being convened by the British government. Nehru, however, felt that India’s national interest lay in coming up with arrangements regarding the canal that would be widely accepted.
The Indian delegation to London was lead by Krishna Menon, who also energetically tried to broker a compromise settlement between Britain and Egypt. Interestingly, in order to signal to Britain that India was not leaning towards Egypt, Nehru dissuaded the latter from using the Indian rupee as currency for trade with third countries. He also discouraged Parliament from debating the crisis: Public opinion in India was much more sympathetic to Egypt than the official position. Menon’s efforts, however, failed to bridge the chasm between Egypt and Britain.
As diplomacy sputtered to a halt, Nasser grew concerned about the threat of military action being held out by London and Paris. At Nehru’s suggestion, he proposed the immediate formation of a negotiating body representative of the various views espoused by the countries that used the canal. Nehru commended this idea to Britain and the US, and especially impressed upon the latter to take the lead in forging a settlement. At the same time, he refused Egypt’s requests for small arms and ammunition. Nehru held that if India supplied these, “our capacity for playing a mediatory role would disappear.”
But Britain and France had other ideas. In the event, the invasion of Egypt led Nehru to abandon his balancing act and come out swinging against the aggressors. By the time the crisis came to an ignominious end for Britain, France and Israel — largely owing to American pressure — India was asked to take the lead in an international force under the UN flag to man the armistice line between Egypt and Israel.
The Suez crisis was not a triumph for Indian diplomacy. Yet, by showcasing its ability to play a genuinely independent role, India buttressed its standing as an Asian power. This history is worth recalling today. At a time when West Asia is in the throes of major conflicts, India is nowhere in the picture. It has stayed out of all international efforts to manage these conflicts, focusing instead on imminent threats to Indians living in the region. This stance sits awkwardly with India’s professed desire to be a leading power in its extended neighbourhood. The story of its involvement in the Suez crisis could offer New Delhi a lesson or two in the perils and prospects of diplomatic leadership.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal