Prime Minister Narendra Modi was conspicuous by his absence at the seventeenth Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit held in Margarita, Venezuela, in September 2016. He became only the second Indian prime minister after the caretaker PM Charan Singh to skip a NAM summit. Modi’s decision is being perceived as a historic diplomatic snub. NAM is not among the “core principles” of his foreign policy, which sees nothing more than “heritage value” in NAM.
Prime Minister Modi’s snub represents the triumphalism of the buoyant Indian middle-class, which believes that India has already arrived in the First-world. Distancing from the Third World is but natural, given India’s growing stature and clout. NAM reminds India of its humble beginnings as a Third World nation — a nostalgia that doesn’t fit the utopia of Modi’s vision and foreign policy.
However, the so-called humble beginning was also the golden-age of Indian foreign policy. At independence, India was a country maimed by the paralysis of colonialism, marred by abject poverty, illiteracy and deprivation. But even as a country on crutches, India took the lead in influencing the global order of the time. It formed the NAM, which re-oriented the global balance of power and impacted the dynamics of international politics. Today, India preens itself on its unparalleled economic growth and its political weight in the international arena. But the fact remains that it is just a fence-sitter in matters of global importance.
NAM stands today as an impressive monument of the golden age of Indian foreign policy. Should we discard it as a fossil of the bygone age or seek to leverage our unique status within it for India and the world?
Post-cold war relevance of NAM
The commonplace criticism of NAM is that since its genesis in the acrimonious bi-polarity of the cold war it has lost its relevance in the post-cold war scenario. This criticism is premised on a narrow understanding of NAM solely as a movement that pledges neutrality between the two superpowers.
The term ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ is somewhat of a misnomer. NAM is not a movement driven by a defined, singular, monolithic ideology of neutrality between the two poles. NAM, in its essence, is an attitude — a general vision of the global order that espouses ideals of strategic autonomy, sovereignty of nations, anti-colonialism, global democracy, anti-racism, upholding human right, global liberalism, rejection of ideological bigotry, universal disarmament, Nehruvian idea of peaceful co-existence and world peace.
Legendary Indian diplomat Krishna Menon, who was one of the principal architects of NAM, identified its most fundamental principle as strategic autonomy of nations, sovereignty of the Third World and maximization of freedom of action. Neutrality between the two superpowers happened to be only a contingent attribute developed in the accidental context of the cold-war, while NAM’s basic philosophy preceded that cold war.
When World War II broke out, a strategic debate erupted among the cadres of the Congress. Gandhi, despite being staunchly opposed to the Fascist-Nazi ideology, endorsed Nehru’s position of not participating in the war on the side of the Allies. This Nehru-Gandhi stance, that keeps sovereignty and strategic autonomy as sacrosanct, reflects the nascent roots of this attitude of “non-alignment,” which in the context of cold war got christened as NAM.
The the roots of NAM penetrate deep into Indian history to precede the formation of hostile cold war blocs. Therefore, the end of cold war rivalry should have little effect on the meaningfulness of NAM.
The 1971 Indo-Pak war illustrated that ideological neutrality was perceived as parochial by NAM nations. When then U.S. President Nixon threatened India by pushing the nuclear armed Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not hesitate to call up Soviet President Khrushchev. Mrs. Gandhi’s action was an affirmation of the sacrosanct principle of NAM, which is strategic autonomy and sovereignty of the Third Wrld, and not ideological neutrality.
Cohesion and Effectiveness
The collective quest for greater freedom and sovereignty is the cohesive force that knits together the global-south. There is no doubt that members of NAM have vociferously disagreed on specific issues of international politics, giving an outward impression that NAM lacks cohesion. However, the philosophy of NAM is not concerned with specific issues, unlike organizations like NATO. NAM aims to forge a broad-based consensus among the global-south on global issues of strategic autonomy. Flexibility, along with space for disagreements, is the essence of NAM.
Consider the Middle East, which is highly volatile and has been destabilizing world peace. Countries affected by the Arab Spring are largely all members of NAM and the region today feels a need for the nourishing support that NAM once provided to counterbalance the aggressive posturing of the West, especially during the Suez crisis and the peak years of Israel-Palestine conflict.
No doubt, members of NAM will remain divided over specific issues of Middle East — dealing with ISIS, position on the Assad regime, etc. However, the purpose of NAM is not to forge unanimity on these issues, but to foster a general, broad consensus among the global-south and balance global opinion by giving voice to the global-south perspective. At present, the dominant global narrative and opinions are largely shaped by Western powers, without the balance of the regional Middle East perspective.
For example, when in June 2012, an elected government was formed by an Islamic party, Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak regime, the U.S. remained suspicious of its credentials as a democratic government because of its Islamic underpinnings. The dominant global opinion, driven by American sentiments of Islamophobia, often tends to forget that Islam is embedded in Middle East civil society and any democratic government will inevitably reflect an element of Islam. Democracy in the Middle East must rise from within its civil society and western models of democracy, which categorically segregate religion from state, should not be artificially imposed.
Therefore, a body like NAM, which has, in principle, always promoted democracy in the Third World, is needed to reflect and protect the nascent shoots of democracy arising from within the Arab soil and not one exported from the west. It is needed to balance global opinions and narratives.
Role of NAM
NAM today stands as the largest international organization after only the United Nations. With a strength of 120 member countries, it is the only established organization with the potential to provide a fertile ecosystem for south-south cooperation.
India occupies a unique position as a linchpin connecting the developed world to the resurgent global-south. And NAM as a platform that weaves together the entire global south, of which India is a historic and natural leader, gives India unique leverage in global affairs. Abandoning NAM weakens Indua’s own position as the vanguard of the resurgent global-south connecting it to the global-north.
Furthermore, a bird’s eye-view of the last three decades of Indian foreign policy demonstrates that India’s multilateral diplomacy has failed to pass muster. The biggest successes of Indian diplomacy have largely been bilateral, while few multilateral breakthroughs have been achieved. India’s failed bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership is a recent example.
If India could resuscitate and leverage NAM, the largest international grouping after the United Nations, the larger goals of India’s multilateral diplomacy could gain great impetus. For example, rallying NAM could help advance India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. NAM has always stood for an equitable representation of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the UN, especially the Security Council. Similarly, India’s position at forums like WTO, where India repeatedly takes up cudgels for the developing world, can be strengthened if the NAM platform is effectively managed to forge broad issue-based consensusamong developing countries.
Far from distancing itself from NAM, India’s strategic and global interests are best served by resuscitating, strengthening and leveraging NAM on the global stage.