Why Modi Skipping the Non-Aligned Summit Is a Strategic Miss for India

India should not ignore the fact that the Non Aligned Movement comprises frontline states in the contest for economic influence between China and the United States.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Huanzhou, China. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Huanzhou, China. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the 17th Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit reflects poorly on his  ability to utilise strategic levers that have served the country well in the past and continue to have relevance even today. Some analysts may see the decision to give the meeting in Margarita, Venezuela a miss as driven by an aversion to the bloc’s perceived anti-West posturing. Were that the case, however, the Ministry of External Affairs would not have embarked on an energetic and highly successful outreach endeavour to the BRICS countries, that began with India assuming the presidency of the five-nation grouping this year. Could it be, however, that NAM is too closely identified with the Congress for the prime minister to want to engage with it?

Modi’s sights are set not on the many Congress prime ministers who flew to NAM summits out of some sense of obligation to the leagcy of the party’s first family, but on Jawaharlal Nehru himself. If Nehru was the architect of independent India’s external relations with the world, he also steered the country away from great power politics, positioning New Delhi as an interested observer. Modi appears personally committed to re-orienting India’s foreign policy in the 21st century, driven squarely by its engagement with major powers, be it the United States, Russia, Iran or China. This is a commendable objective – perhaps even commensurate to India’s rise globally – but there is no reason that India’s participation in the NAM summit at the highest level has to be a casualty of cross-party differences. Instead of staying away, the prime minister should have used the latest summit to turn around India’s recent history of largely symbolic and vacuous engagement with the NAM into real benefits.

Perhaps the backdrop of this year’s summit has the MEA concerned about NAM. There is some irony in proclaiming solidarity with the developing world even as the host country, Venezuela, suffers from a debilitating economic crisis. Second, the host country usually holds the pen and circulates a ‘zero draft’ in advance for inputs from member countries. The Venezuelan draft may have rhetoric that India would find difficult to temper, although this is a problem that India has already managed once in 2012 during Iran’s presidency of NAM under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Creating a role for NAM

The fact is that the Non Aligned Movement is a multilateral institution that still holds promise for Indian diplomacy. If NAM has stuttered from summit to summit since the end of the Cold War, it is for want of an updated raison d’être. While previous conversations revolved around the political affiliations of NAM members, India can invoke the current global scenario to make the case for the bloc’s economic non-alignment. Several African, Latin American and Central Asian countries in the movement are set to be recipients of Chinese investment, either through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the One Belt, One Road project. The concern that they will abandon existing multilateral institutions and norms once they receive Chinese assistance – what the Indian foreign ministry has itself referred to as “hard-wiring” by Beijing – can be countered by securing their economic ‘neutrality’. Few other global institutions can do this today. G7 and G20 members, battling their own economic crises, are in no position to counter China’s influence through aid and assistance in Africa. The US’s ill-advised military interventions in West Asia have limited its room for manoeuvring in the region. As for Latin America, a few leftist governments may have bit the dust but right-wing leaders in the continent are not exactly lining up to curry favour with the US. The fact remains that the US is headed towards a period of relative isolationism, which opens the room for China to influence existing regional and multilateral configurations.

Traditionally, NAM summits have also underlined instruments of international law. The 2012 Tehran communique devoted a lengthy paragraph to the South China Sea dispute, “stressing the need for full implementation” of the principles laid down in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Were the 2016 Margarita communique to comment on the SCS arbitration between China and the Philippines in a way that reflects India’s own ‘principled’ position on the matter, it would be a shot in the arm for New Delhi. This would not be the first time that India has used a NAM summit to highlight regional concerns. In 1981, at a preparatory conference of foreign ministers ahead of New Delhi’s chairmanship of the NAM summit, India did not hesitate to call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. At the height of the Cold War, India used NAM’s statements to reinforce the idea of the Indian Ocean as a “zone of peace”, in a tacit reference to the US military base in Diego Garcia. Now, with the Indian Ocean set to be a site for contestation and regional influence, New Delhi should use NAM’s support to hedge any possible military build-up by China in the Indian Ocean Region.

Modi is right to step up the intensity of India’s engagement with major powers, but NAM also provides the prime minister with an opportunity to further the goodwill he has generated through engagement with Africa, the Pacific Islands countries and smaller players in the ASEAN grouping. In viewing closer ties with the US as a potential buffer against China’s rise, New Delhi should not discount the reality that it is these cash-strapped, smaller countries that will become frontline states in a bipolar contest. Just as NAM needed strongmen like Nehru, Tito and Nasser to frame its agenda, the bloc’s re-orientation can only take place with the involvement of powerful leaders like Modi, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani.

Neglect by Congress

If NAM has become a much maligned movement in New Delhi, it is on account of the Congress’s sterile approach to the bloc, treating it as a foreign policy heirloom. Shorn of its ideological moorings, NAM remains a powerful group, whose power India should harness to promote its own regional influence. Modi should show the way by leading the Indian delegation to the summit. If the Congress made the mistake of obliging the NAM pro forma, the prime minister could have set that mistake straight by heading a delegation armed with strong talking points for the summit.

Of course, this is not the first time a powerful Indian prime minister has weighed against attending NAM. In 1973, Indira Gandhi initially sought to skip the summit, “on account of a reluctance to get involved in emotional Arab politics when the problems of Pakistan and Bangladesh were still unsolved.” Her advisor, P.N. Haskar, prevailed on her finally, but as the commentator Romesh Thapar observed at the time, India barely put any “solid work or planning” into its participation. For NAM to emerge from its “sleep”, it needed powerful leadership , Thapar observed, failing which it would be stuck repeating cliches.

Modi’s absence at this week’s summit does little to change India’s NAM policy – were a future Congress prime minister to sleepwalk into another NAM summit, she or he would at best undo the symbolism of that absence. Now is the time, therefore, for India to step forward and decisively steer the future course of the international grouping.

Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.