India has given out blaring signals, if one listens carefully, that it is not really aligned with the non-aligned movement, which once formed the basis of the country’s foreign policy.

The ministry of external affairs (MEA) on September 14 officially announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not attend the 17th NAM summit scheduled for September 17 and 18 in Margarita Island, Venezuela.

Missing the action

Interestingly, the Government, which is usually quite vociferous about its foreign policy initiatives with a ‘rockstar’ Prime Minister known to create ripples in every country he visits, did not feel it necessary to provide a credible reason for his non-attendance, instead sending Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Modi is the second Prime Minister after Charan Singh (in 1979) to give the NAM summit a miss. However, we should not make the mistake of thinking that India should be seen as “aligned” to the major power blocks. In fact, the Vice-President’s attendance still keeps alive a ray of hope that India has not abandoned NAM completely. Indeed, the MEA recently said that NAM continues to be the foundation of India’s foreign policy.

During the meeting of foreign ministers of NAM countries, the minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, suggested the creation of a NAM working group on terrorism. He urged member-countries to fulfil its call for urgent reforms of the UN Security Council even as he tried to draw attention to NAM’s Agenda 2030 for sustainable development of all humankind.

While this is all very well, one wonders whether the talk will be walked. And the picture is clear. Over the last many years we have seen how India has left no stone unturned to embolden its strategic ties with the US while economic ties continue to rise unabated. India’s defence relationship with the US is witnessing unprecedented growth. At present, we import more arms from the US than from any other country, and the bonhomie between the two is like never before. But that should not stop us from calling a spade a spade.

Perceptible tilt

India has tacitly supported every move of NATO. On the other hand, we have made it abundantly clear that we are opposed to some of the moves that China makes. We have badgered them in every possible way using all the vocabulary that exists in the diplomatic dictionary. We have taken a clear position against the Chinese on the South China Sea dispute even though there has been no security threat posed to India even as it continues to enjoy freedom of navigation.

Why it is so difficult to realise that whether India loves China or hates it, it cannot ignore China if it has to emerge as a formidable Asian powerhouse.

India is well aware that the challenges it faces cannot be met by conducting activism in NAM. Today’s India is not the India that existed during the Cold War era. Today’s India is a recognised nuclear power, a ‘natural partner’ of the US, boasting considerable defence prowess. The reality is that India understands that there is no concept of an equal relationship, as was once preached by NAM, in global geopolitics. We also know we cannot ignore Russia while we continue to indulge the US.

A look back at history

What did NAM actually mean? For the Google generation NAM might only end up being a Wikipedia term. It was founded in September 1961 when the world was coming out of the shackles of colonial era and people’s movements were gathering steam in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.

The idea of NAM was jointly conceived by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah and Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito. However, the term, Non-aligned movement or NA,’ was coined by veteran Indian diplomat VK Krishna Menon at the UN in 1953 and was later promoted by Nehru.

The idea was to create a grouping of like-minded countries that believed in the concept of a level-playing field in global geo-politics and world strategy, thereby not being formally aligned with any power bloc. There was a deliberate attempt to maintain that the group was a movement and not an economic bloc or organisation. From the Nehurvian era till about 1991, NAM was the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy.

The last NAM summit was held in Tehran, Iran, in May 2012, and was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His attendance at a time when Iran was under international sanctions gave out a strong signal to the world that India supported the movement. But that does not mean the Congress cannot be blamed for treating it as a foreign policy obligation, devoid of innovative or fresh ideas.

The present summit in Venezuela was Modi’s chance to spin the table and use the instrument of NAM to spell out India’s strategic objectives. He could have given it an economic agenda since India is now too fond of economic groupings like the G20, SCO, BRICS and IBSA, to name a few. Or he could have really said the unsaid — that NAM is becoming irrelevant.

As a veteran foreign policy expert said, NAM is like a patient who has slipped into a coma and now in the ICU, and member-countries are like relatives coerced into marking their presence at the risk of being labelled impolite or insensitive.

The need of the hour is to do a thorough assessment as long as NAM languishes in the ICU. And one should not forget that nothing stops China from bringing the patient back to life and running the show as part of its fight against western hegemony. The writing is on the wall, if one cares to read it.