Still relevant after all these years

India needs non-alignment not just to preserve its “strategic autonomy” but to mobilise developing countries on the basis of common interests

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

Published - September 25, 2012 12:51 am IST

120925 - Lead - Relevance of NAM

120925 - Lead - Relevance of NAM

What was most significant about the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit that was held in Tehran recently was that almost all of its 120 members gathered there in the face of U.S., allied western nations and Israeli attempts to pressure and isolate Iran to abandon parts of its nuclear programme. Great pressure was even brought on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by Washington and Tel Aviv not to attend, but the mild and generally pliant Ban could not bring himself to abandon the precedent set by his predecessors and skip the event.

Confidence booster

The attempt to isolate Iran failed completely. Hosting the summit was a great confidence booster for Tehran which was able to present its case to the largest international organisation of developing nations. It showcased the lethal attacks on its scientists, suspected to be by Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad. In its final declaration the Summit unanimously supported Iran’s right to develop all aspects of its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and criticised attempts to isolate Iran and punish it with unilateral sanctions. Even though NAM may not have the political, economic or military strength to successfully resist those powerful nations, it cannot be doubted that its support undermines the legitimacy of sanctions, especially those outside the U.N. framework, as well as diverse forms of undercover sabotage and killings by Israel with or without U.S. involvement, including any military attack if it were to take place.

It is in this context that the decision of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resist U.S. pressure and attend the Summit himself has to be seen. Even though he made no mention of the Iran nuclear issue at the Summit, his very presence was seen as expressing the Indian government’s support for Iran and for NAM more generally. Further, there was considerable warmth in his meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Besides, the Indian Foreign Minister met his Iranian counterpart ahead of the Summit to develop bilateral economic ties.

On the other issue on the international agenda, the Prime Minister spoke out forthrightly against “external intervention” in the Syrian crisis, which, he said, would “exacerbate the suffering of ordinary citizens.” He added that “NAM should urge all parties to recommit themselves to resolving the crisis peacefully through a Syrian-led inclusive political process.” This was directly in opposition to the U.S. stand and actions on the issue. But NAM could not come out with a clear stand because of many internal differences, especially among the Arab and Islamic nations, and the final declaration made no mention of the issue. This showed some of the limitations of NAM in areas involving conflicts between and within its member nations.

Is NAM still relevant in the post-Cold War world, in an era where the U.S. and its allies are politically, economically and strategically more dominant than ever? NAM is routinely derided by the western media and policymakers as an irrelevant “relic of the Cold War.” U.S. policymakers have explicitly stated that they would like to see India out of NAM altogether and even abandon the concept of non-alignment in its foreign policy thinking. Alternatively, they would like India to join their alliance of democracies against non-democracies, which in their opinion is the defining agenda in the present global scenario. Another idea is “multi-alignment” — participation in diverse international groupings of nations like G 20, G 77, IBSA, RIC, Brics, Basic, among others, for promoting different interests.

The reasons are not far to seek. Even from its pre-origins in the Bandung Conference of former colonial nations in 1955, NAM has meant much more than not being aligned with the two Cold War blocs. It was also conceived as the voice of the former colonies and poor nations in a world overwhelmingly dominated by the rich western nations. The G 77 which takes up the cause of the developing countries in international fora on economic and development issues was complementary to NAM. Solidarity within NAM provides strength to its member nations. Hence, NAM has that flavour of anti-imperialism associated with its origin and history which the rich and powerful nations would like to see forgotten.

In such a context what should NAM’s role be in Indian foreign policy? The Prime Minister in his address reaffirmed the continuing relevance of NAM. And he emphasised that NAM was important “to preserve our strategic space.” A recent policy perspective document developed by the a panel of “independent thinkers,” some closely linked to the Indian Government, titled Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century , argues that the objective of non-alignment is to preserve and enhance the nation’s “strategic autonomy.”

Interestingly, the phrases “Non-Aligned Movement” and “G 77” do not find any place in it. Non-alignment has been redefined in exclusively Indian national terms to enhance its independence or sovereignty and provide room for manoeuvre amidst diverse pressures to promote its ambitions and interests.

What has been decisively abandoned is India’s solidarity with the developing countries and the aim of mobilising them on the basis of common interests and agenda. This perspective has become more influential in Indian policy circles especially after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the initiation domestically of radical economic private sector oriented reforms at the start of the 1990s. However, the founding fathers of NAM saw the two objectives — national independence and the solidarity of developing countries — as profoundly interdependent for the former colonies which were embarking on the path of development in a deeply unequal world. Can they be separated in an age when there is no communist bloc to provide a countervailing force to the almost complete dominance of the rich and powerful nations?

In recent decades, the Indian government seems to have more faith in the U.N. as a forum to protect its independence and interests. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist allies, that institution has almost completely been dominated by the powerful nations. The U.S., long hostile to many of its associated organisations, has been openly sceptical if not downright contemptuous of it, even though its West European allies are keener to work within its framework. Whether in the context of lack of solidarity among the developing nations, the U.N. will be able to provide a check on those powerful nations is doubtful.

Change in perspective

This change over the last quarter century in the Indian perspective on NAM has to be seen in the context of its revised foreign policy agenda being almost exclusively focused on transforming the nation into a great power. The way towards this objective, it is felt, is to start thinking big, join the rich man’s club and enter into friendly relations with the rich and powerful nations for economic, hi-tech and military benefits and a place at the high table where the great powers decide the fate of humankind. Hence, one of its chief priorities is to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Another, to be allowed hegemony in the South Asian region. To advance this agenda, friendship with the most technologically and economically advanced and militarily powerful nation, the United States, is seen as the most promising path.

But India wants to also maintain its “strategic autonomy,” “to preserve our strategic space.” Hence, the continuing ambivalence and shifting stands. India voted against Tehran earlier but has since resisted additional sanctions by the U.S.-led western nations. Also, it tried to resist attempts to restrict its oil purchases from Iran, before ultimately succumbing to U.S. pressure. It has also actively tried to increase its bilateral trade and economic ties and maintain more friendly political relations with Iran.

Even if building better relations with the rich and powerful nations has benefited India in recent decades, abandoning the solidarity with other developing nations within NAM may well end up adversely affecting the nation’s economic, political and strategic interests.

(The author is a former editor of the Deccan Herald newspaper.)

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