Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a virtual Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) contact group summit on May 4. It was convened by the current NAM chairperson Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on the theme ‘United against COVID-19 pandemic”. Modi’s presence in the meeting was intriguing. Since the first Nam summit in 1961 in Belgrade, apart from Prime Minister Charan Singh who could not take part in its Havana edition in 1979 because of domestic political exigencies Modi is the only Prime Minister to have deliberately avoided NAM; he did not take part in both summits held in his time—the 17th in Venezuela in 2016 and the 18th in Azerbaijan last year.
Clearly Modi has signalled that the non-alignment, as principle, which had become a core anchor of Indian foreign policy in the formative years after independence and NAM, as organisation, which was a product of Jawaharlal Nehru’s striving was now an anachronism; it had outlived its utility as India and the world changed. This position found large acceptance among India’s security and foreign policy experts. Many of them had so felt since the end of the Soviet Union and hence of the Cold War in 1991. While there is partial merit is this view a look at the origins of non-alignment as principle and movement would be useful to assess the present.
As India became independent Nehru thought freedom would be of little meaning if India’s external and internal developmental choices were circumscribed by a membership of one of the two superpowers led blocs that emerged after World War 2 –the Western led by the United States and the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union. He decided to keep away from joining either but that did not imply maintaining neutrality if India’s interests demanded going with one of the superpowers on any issue. This was non-alignment in principle. Indeed, it became a code word for an independent foreign policy.
Non alignment as a movement was to promote decolonisation and safeguard the newly independent states from the direct interference of old colonial masters. It was also to try to promote peace at a time when the two superpowers armed with nuclear weapons were endangering humanity. Indeed, the statement that emerged from the first summit made clear the fears of the times. It also articulated the demand for an equitable and just world order.
All through the next three decades NAM strove to promote the interests of the developing world amidst the rivalry of the two blocs. Its demands found little sympathy in the western world which broadly considered it to be too sympathetic to the Soviet Union. This was also because till the 1970s and even in the next decade, though less so, the dominant ideology among a large number of influential NAM members was socialism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led many to question the rationale of continuing with NAM. The decision to do so was based on the need to have an organisation which would pressure the developed world not to neglect the interests of developing countries and to transfer resources and technology to them. However, as new global concerns regarding environment and climate change for instance emerged and as socialism was abandoned in favour of the international market the combative diplomacy which had become the hallmark of some non-aligned states began to be considered as counter-productive in the absence of competitive bidding by two antagonistic blocs as in the past.
From the early 1990s India too changed its domestic socio-economic orientation. This partly led to changes in its external engagements. As India acquired greater heft it came into the peculiar situation of becoming simultaneously part of global management and of trade unions. It had to manage the demands of the new situation and could no longer side with the thinking and articulation of countries that continued to be reflexively driven by anti-western sentiments. With the passage of time its participation in different global groups such as G20 and BRICS and dialogue partner status with regional groups as the ASEAN acquired salience. NAM was pushed into the background as illustrated by Modi’s decisions to ignore NAM summits.
Now comes this participation in the virtual summit on COVID-19. Has Modi done so specifically only to engage with as many states as possible to foster global cooperation to meet the challenge of the pandemic? Or is there the beginning of some serious thinking because the world is entering a period of strong contestation between the US and China?
In his address to the NAM contact group Modi asked the Movement to be inclusive if it wanted to remain the world’s moral voice. Was he cautioning its members against strident criticism of the positions of any country either explicitly or implicitly in emerging global equations? If this was the intent, then the summit’s communique’s whole hearted endorsement of the WHO would be troubling. It “expressed full support to the WHO and its leadership…” at a time when President Donald Trump virtually calling it China’s puppet and propagandist has withdrawn US funding from the organisation. The communique also contained references to some NAM’s traditional positions that indirectly criticise the US.
Modi also called for a “new template of globalisation, based on fairness, equality and humanity” and for the promotion of “human welfare” and not a focus on “economic growth” alone. Ironically these fine words recall NAM’s founding principles so close to Nehru’s heart at a time when dominant sections of Indian society and polity decry him day in and day out.