Farewell to NAM

A summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) without the Indian Prime Minister is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark and that is what was enacted in Venezuela recently. The only other time when an Indian Prime Minister stayed home was in 1979, when the historic Havana summit took place. Prime Minister Charan Singh’s absence, however, had nothing to do with NAM; this time, the absence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a political message.

Sources close to the Prime Minister have taken pains to explain that his absence was deliberate as he did not find NAM to be important enough for him to spend a couple of days in distant Venezuela. Therefore, the explanation given by the head of the Indian delegation, Vice President Hamid Ansari, that the summit was not a conference of Prime Ministers and, therefore, Indian participation was adequate did not carry conviction.

Flawed assumptions about NAM

Non-alignment has not been in the vocabulary of Prime Minister Modi. He has been on a quest for selective alignments to suit his needs for India’s development and security. His advisers have now begun to rationalise India’s distancing from NAM. One argument is that NAM did not have any binding principles and that it was a marriage of convenience among disparate countries. This argument arises from the narrow, literary interpretation of non-alignment. Many commentators had felt, right from the beginning, that the word ‘non-alignment’ conveyed the wrong notion that it was not aligning with the power blocs and that the be-all and end-all of non-alignment was to remain unaligned. But the quintessence of non-alignment was freedom of judgment and action and it remained valid, whether there was one bloc or two. Seen in that context, non-military alliances can also be within the ambit of non-alignment, which was subsequently characterised as ‘strategic autonomy’. In other words, India does not have to denounce non-alignment to follow its present foreign policy.

Another argument being heard is that NAM countries did not come to our help on any of the critical occasions when India needed solidarity, such as the Chinese aggression in 1962 or the Bangladesh war in 1971. Even in the latest struggle against terror, NAM has not come to assist India in any way. But the whole philosophy of NAM is that it remains united on larger global issues, even if does not side with a member on a specific issue. India itself has followed this approach, whenever the members had problems with others either inside or outside the movement. NAM positions have always been the reflection of the lowest common denominator in any given situation.

That NAM has no ideal or ideology as a glue is a wrong assumption. Though the criteria for NAM membership are general, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and anti-racism were essential attributes of NAM countries. There was a consensus on nuclear disarmament also till India broke ranks by keeping out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The diversity reflected in both Singapore and Cuba being NAM members has been its strength. Therefore, Egypt signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978 or India signing the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971 did not result in any disruption of membership.

A heritage we can leverage

All said and done, the golden age in India’s foreign policy was in the first 15 years after Independence, when NAM provided a constituency for India because of our non-violent victory over the British and the leadership it provided to the newly independent countries. Our problems were different from the small and impoverished nations that thronged the movement, but Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision and statesmanship inspired them. We did not seek to resolve our problems through the machinery of dispute resolution in NAM, but actively assisted those who sought such assistance. India led the NAM effort to resolve the Iran-Iraq dispute.

As expected, political issues continued to engage NAM and we benefitted from its activism occasionally. In fact, it was through NAM that we operated to counter the efforts to expand the UN Security Council by including just Germany and Japan as permanent members. NAM submitted its own proposal and ensured that no quick fix was permitted.

The question we need to ask is whether our continued involvement with NAM would stand in the way of our 21st century ambitions. The very informal nature of NAM permits members to operate individually. It also has the facility of members reserving their positions, as we did on the non-proliferation positions of NAM. Our new nearness to the U.S. is not a red rag in NAM and our ability to be helpful in formulating U.S. policies gives us an advantage. No NAM country may agree to isolate Pakistan, but the NAM forum will be an effective instrument to project our anti-terrorist sentiments.

NAM is particularly important in elections at the UN, including the possible identification of new permanent members of the Security Council. The NAM position may not be decisive, but in the normal process of consultations, every grouping will get its own weightage and it is convenient to have a lobby behind us. NAM today, like the Commonwealth has always been, is a heritage we need not discard.

The decision to say farewell to NAM is very much in keeping with the new transactional nature of the foreign policy we are developing. NAM was a part of our larger vision for the world, but today it is seen as inconsequential to our present preoccupations. This transformation will not be lost on the world community.

T.P. Sreenivasan, former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is Director General, Kerala International Centre.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 1:10:52 PM |

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