Known to create ripples in every country he visits, our “rock star” Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose not to attend the 17th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Venezuela which concluded on September 18. India is one of the five founding members of the NAM. Only once before has the Indian Prime Minister not been to the NAM Summit and that was in 1979 when caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh decided not go to Havana.
Downplaying Prime Minister Narendra Modi skipping the NAM Summit, Vice President Hamid Ansari had asserted that it is participation that matters as it is "not a conference of Prime Ministers". But Modi’s absence from the summit represents a lot more. There are two major reasons behind his decision to skip the meet. Since Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the founding fathers of NAM, many observers have identified NAM as a legacy of the Congress party and its governments. This is the first reason. The second has its roots in the pursuit of a US-centric foreign policy. The Modi government is of the opinion that the world order has changed. It believes that India’s association with NAM seems out of sync with today's realities. Modi feels that blocs and alliances are less relevant today and the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order.
NAM could have been more relevant in a bi-polar world. Should an Indian Prime Minister reject the concept of NAM just because he wants to go along with a particular group of power players? India has been aligned with the Americans post globalisation. It is not something that began under the Modi regime. Dr Manmohan Singh risked the future of the Congress-led UPA government over the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. India’s engagement with the United States of America has been a continuous process that began during the days of erstwhile Congress governments. It is good if Modi continues to move along the path set by previous regimes. But he must also realise that no Congress Prime Minister would have ever thought of ignoring the importance of NAM, even while making progress in Indo-US ties.
True, a lot of India’s foreign policy is about managing China today. Beijing's decision to enlarge China's footprints in the Indian Ocean is a matter of serious concern to us. India wants to become one of the central pillars of global politics. But all this does not require depriving NAM of Modi's presence. NAM is still around. It still acts as a strong club for the developing nations. It is still the most powerful voice of the have-nots. NAM is an influential group on a range of issues at the United Nations. Till the ideas of emancipation, anti-imperialism, and peace are relevant, NAM will remain an important global body. Thus, India has no right to ditch the trust of millions of people struggling to save their dignity across the world.
Nehru was the architect of Independent India’s international relations. He also steered the country away from world power politics and positioned India as an interested observer. Modi appears committed to greater engagement with major powers. Keeping in mind the compulsions of the 21st century, Modi’s objective is perhaps commensurate with India’s stature in the world today. But this should not have been a reason for his non-attendance. By reaching Margarita Island and ignoring cross-party differences, Modi could have turned around India’s engagement with NAM into real benefits.
NAM as a multilateral forum still holds promise for Indian diplomacy. Modi could have used this opportunity to change the discourse from conversations around political affiliations to make the case for the bloc’s economic non-alignment. The “hard-wiring” by China in several African, Latin American, and Central Asian countries through massive investments in infrastructure projects can be countered by securing economic neutrality for these nations. Our Prime Minister could have played a very effective role in raising this issue at NAM. These summits have also underlined instruments of international law from time to time. The communique issued after 2012 NAM summit held in Tehran devoted an extensive portion to the South China Sea dispute. There was an opportunity for Modi to have a shot in his arm by playing a pivotal role in the formulation of Margarita communique this time. He also had the chance to attack any possible military build-up by China in the Indian Ocean.
Prime Minister Modi has given out blaring signals that India is not really in sync with the non-aligned movement anymore. By not going to the NAM Summit he has played a trick and removed what was the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy for more than half a century. Dr Manmohan Singh attended the last NAM summit in Tehran at a time when Iran was under international sanctions. His presence gave out a strong signal to the world that India supported the movement.
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. It is not in India's interest to shun its fundamental responsibilities in today’s global scene. There is no dearth of nations in the world who expect the land of Mahatma Gandhi to stand beside them in their hour of struggle. Whether Modi likes or not, the institutions created by Nehru in the national and international arena should be respected. Any deliberate attempt to denigrate these symbols of history is an attempt to demean the dignity of the office Narendra Bhai holds.
(The author is Editor and CEO of News Views India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)