India’s desultory attitude to the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was again confirmed by the relatively low level, although political, representation at the 60th anniversary commemorative summit held in Belgrade on October 11. India was represented by Meenakshi Lekhi, minister of state in the ministry of external affairs who emphasised, at the beginning of her address to the summit that she was attending as prime minister Narendra Modi’s special envoy.
That was of some significance but the perception would remain that NAM is now peripheral for India. This would be especially because external affairs minister S Jaishankar chose, during the period the NAM event took place, to go on a tour of Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Kazakhstan; in Kazakhstan he attended a session of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA). Thus, Jaishankar reinforced the idea that NAM is not on India’s radar screen at all.
Indeed, despite the denial of its diplomats, India has shown less and less enthusiasm for NAM over the decades. This has been particularly so during the past seven years. Prime minister Narendra Modi did not participate in both the NAM summits held during his period in office—in 2016 in Venezuela and in 2019 in Azerbaijan. Vice-president Hamid Ansari represented India in the former while his successor Venkaiah Naidu did so in the latter. NAM’s significance for India has also been questioned in India foreign policy circles and not without cause. This questioning began soon after the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Many asserted that the Movement was a manifestation of the desire of the newly independent countries to steer clear of the two blocs which was the defining feature of international politics during the Cold War. Both the capitalist group of countries led by the United States and the communist by the Soviet Union wanted to lure these countries to become allied to their bloc. Many blandishments were held out to them. A large number also succumbed to the lure of the advantages, real and perceived, that were held out. However, there were tall leaders, some of whom who had gone through the fire of the struggle for freedom against colonial rule in their respective countries, who believed that the interests of their peoples demanded the pursuit of an independent course in policy making and action.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the beacon light to those who thought so. Others included Josep Broz Tito, who led Yugoslavia and held that disparate country together and Gamal Abdel Nasser the Egyptian hero who was the soul of Arab nationalism. These leaders wanted close relations with the major powers but wanted to retain their autonomy in both domestic and external spheres. Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular, championed the cause of decolonisation and India was looked up to as a country which had succeeded in throwing off the colonial yoke under Gandhiji’s guidance and through a movement of non-violent non-cooperation. This was an inspiration to a whole generation of leaders of newly independent states. Indian democracy too was a shining light to the peoples of many decolonised countries who sometimes wondered how a country with such so many problems and engaged in the task to socio-economic change could do so through the democratic process.
As the Cold War ended the need for NAM to navigate between the two blocs ended too. Now the votaries of NAM sought to find a new logic. For some it lay in the continuance of the anti-imperialist struggle. They looked upon the United States as an exploitative power which did not care for international equity and justice or the developmental requirements of poor countries. For others NAM provided a means for developing countries to stand together collectively so that they could get a better deal from the developed world. However, by the time the last century ended new political, social and economic issues had emerged which posed new challenges to NAM. Above all the coming of the digital age widened the scientific and technological gap between the advanced and the developing countries creating new inequities. At the same time some NAM countries remained struck in old grooves, fearful of adopting supple and innovative ways to move forward.
Meenakshi Lekhi, in her address at the Belgrade summit, correctly warned NAM members of the dangers of clinging to old ways and not coming out strongly against the new threats, including the use of senseless violence to achieve political objectives. She did well to forthrightly say NAM had “increasingly become ineffective” in “tackling new and emerging challenges”. She also warned members not to attempt “bilateral score-settling” through NAM. She argued in favour of “compromises” to “effectively address new global challenges “like the pandemic, terrorism and climate change”. The question though is not the need to compromise but how much and would compromises yield tangible results.
Obviously, NAM served Indian interests well during the Cold War. It gave it the freedom to navigate between the rule setting powers to secure its own interests. Now sixty years after its founding India finds itself in an entirely different position. In many areas it has developed great capabilities and has a place on the high table. It is correctly asserting its claim to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. At the same time it remains a developing country and in areas such as climate change its interests are aligned with the developing countries.
The test of Indian diplomacy now lies in ensuring that as it goes up the ‘great power’ ladder it retains the support of the developing world. It can only do so if the poor and disadvantaged countries feel that unlike the established great powers it will focus on mutual benefit in dealing with them and not be exploitative.