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“What’s in a name?” The Non-Aligned Movement in Modi’s foreign policy

On May 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an online summit level gathering of member states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) under the chairmanship of Azerbaijan. A Contact Group of NAM member states was envisioned at the highest decision-making level in order to aid multilateral efforts against the spread of Covid-19. PM Modi’s speech in particular, highlighted an important strand of Indian thinking that is increasingly defining its approach as a “leading power.” In response to Covid-19, he spoke of India being the “pharmacy of the world,” and its willingness to share medical expertise and affordable medicines with other developing countries. India, he claimed, had already provided medical supplies to over 123 partner countries, including 59 members of NAM. This signalling has been part of India’s “followership” strategy that seeks to further re-affirm its status as a responsible stakeholder in international society, and presents an inclusive, consensus-driven, and democratic leadership for smaller and economically weaker countries in its neighbourhood. While India’s stress on the projection of military power in the Indian Ocean Region has gradually increased under PM Modi, it still envisions its primary role as that of a “first responder”—to help counter non-traditional security threats like natural disasters, piracy, post-conflict relief and rehabilitation, regime support, or in this case, pandemics.

A similar accent on multilateralism was heard during PM Modi’s address on March 15, during a video conference of SAARC Leaders on combating Covid-19. While the spread of the virus was still in its initial stages at the time (only 150 cases had been reported in all of South Asia), India announced the creation of a common Covid-19 Emergency Fund (to which India donated 10 million USD), and claimed that a “rapid response team of doctors and specialists along with testing kits and other medical equipment” was on stand-by, in case other SAARC member states needed them. Further, an online training module for emergency response teams, an integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to track Covid-19 cases, and a SAARC Disaster Management Centre to pool best practices from member states was also suggested. In line with its long-history in the region, India continues to leverage its technical expertise and normative entrepreneurship while providing humanitarian assistance to smaller states in the region.

This has taken some analysts by surprise. PM Modi skipped the last two NAM summits—choosing to send Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu to represent India at the 19th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 25 and 26—and, as part of its “isolate and shame” strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan, had also kept SAARC in cold storage since the boycott of the Islamabad summit after Uri attacks in 2016. This has led to criticisms of hypocrisy and defunctness. Since India is a member of various security dialogues and initiatives with the United States, and other Indo-Pacific powers such as the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue”, how could it revert to Nehru’s non-aligned moorings? In fact, at the Raisina Dialogue in 2019, former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said: “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state — but based on issues.”

However, and this make truly shock some readers, NAM was never intended to preclude informal alignments and strategic partnerships. While it was meant as a challenge to balance-of-power politics, smaller and materially weaker nations during the Cold War era still needed to navigate the undercurrents of global geopolitics in order to guarantee their national security. While it is commonly known that this was true of countries like Philippines, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who entered into formal military alliances with the US, it is lesser appreciated that this was entirely true of Nehru’s India, albeit in a tacit manner. For example, after US military aid to Pakistan in 1954, Nehru had started to revise India’s strained relationship with the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin. In fact, the two leaders made an official visit to India in 1955 as part of an “economic offensive” to build closer ties with India. The Soviets also revised their stance on the Kashmir dispute. Khrushchev stated, “that the Soviet Union regarded the troubled state as an integral part of India.” At the UN, Russian delegate Arkady Sobolev, vetoed four UNSC resolutions on Kashmir in 1957, on the grounds that these were “unacceptable to India and he would be obliged to vote against it.” Similarly, during the 1962 war with China, Nehru had requested the US under John F. Kennedy for “air transport and jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression” (a minimum 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters were requested). The Chinese forces had just reached a ceasefire in Korea with the Americans a year ago, and Nehru was now asking the latter to join the war as a partner. Under Indira Gandhi, a more perceptible alignment towards the Soviet Union was then visible.

Therefore, members of the NAM did, and continue to, use informal alignments and strategic partnerships to meet their national security ends. In fact, NAM countries actively distinguished themselves from neutral countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, or Finland. So, what was NAM intended to achieve? First, it was about carving out a separate space for countries in the decolonized world that would allow them to retain a sense of their sovereignty (freedom in making foreign policy choices), and to participate in world politics as equal members. Materially weaker states achieved this end by banding together and capitalising on the parliamentary constitution of the UN General Assembly, where their numbers could offer disproportionate advantages. I have already discussed in an earlier piece how the privileging of political and civil liberties in the framing of the international human rights regime was facilitated by Third World countries. Additionally, T.V. Paul in his book Restraining Great Powers highlights the contribution of the NAM to the nuclear disarmament debates during the Cold War. He argued that the “1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water; and the 1968 negotiations for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and subsequent review conferences,” were all responses to Afro-Asian states’ demands for a complete ban on testing following the accelerated atmospheric testing in the 1950s. NAM was also essential to promote the norms of anti-racialism and self-determination throughout international society.

Secondly, more narrowly from an Indian vantage point, NAM was about projecting India in a normative leadership position. As Kate Sullivan de Estrada and Rajesh Basrur argue, India’s status as a leader of Third World countries during the Cold War period, and validation to its “counter-order efforts” was provided mainly by “followers India cultivated among weaker states.”

Therefore, if New Delhi is serious about making a claim to great power status and playing a key agenda-setting role in international society, it will need the support of a group of follower states that buy into its status claim and support its large-scale innovations. In this respect, SAARC and NAM still provide the two most conducive forums where such a vision could be realised. The strategic fatigue that has accumulated from name-calling and mutual recrimination with Pakistan has an easy fix—stop engaging. India can still pursue multilateral efforts for anti-terror legislations and other policy priorities without participating in these public bouts. What India needs is a de-coupling with Pakistan and a recoupling with SAARC and NAM.

(The author is a DPhil Candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford, and the founder of Young Bhartiya, a Mumbai-based think tank committed to bridging the gap between academia and popular media consumption).

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