Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video address to a summit of the non-aligned nations last week has generated criticism as well as commendation. Both sides, however, miss the recent evolution of the Indian thinking on the NAM. External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has spoken frequently about India’s stakes in the so-called “Global South”. He was invoking a term that refers to the entire developing world and not just members of the NAM. The minister has talked about consolidating long-standing political equities that Delhi had created in the NAM and the Global South over the last many decades. The new interest is not a throwback to seeing the NAM as an anti-Western ideological crusade. Nor is it a pretence of valuing the movement but treating it as a ritual to be performed every three years. It is based on the bet that the NAM remains a critical diplomatic forum for the pursuit of India’s international interests.
But why has a routine speech by the PM on promoting global cooperation in combating the coronavirus gotten so much attention? One reason is its billing as Modi’s first address ever to the NAM. After all, he had skipped the last two NAM summits, at Venezuela in 2016 and Azerbaijan in 2019. Critics of the NDA’s foreign policy convinced themselves that Modi had no real attachment for the non-aligned legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. For the traditionalists, Modi’s engagement with the NAM was a welcome return to roots. For those who see the NAM as a political dinosaur, Delhi’s renewed enthusiasm for it seems like a regression. But a closer look at the Modi government’s foreign policy actions reveals a three-fold rationale for intensifying engagement with the NAM.
One, those who say the NAM is a relic of the Cold War must also acknowledge that a new Cold War is beginning to unfold, this time between the US and China. As the conflict between the world’s two most important powers envelops all dimensions of international society, India has every reason to try and preserve some political space in between the two . Second, in the last few years, Delhi paid lip-service to the NAM but devoted a lot of diplomatic energy to forums like BRICS. Given the Russian and Chinese leadership of BRICS, Delhi inevitably began to tamely echo the international positions of Moscow and Beijing rather than represent voices of the Global South. Finally, as a nation seeking to become an independent pole in global affairs, India could do more with forums like the NAM in mobilising support on issues of interest to Delhi. An independent Indian line backed by strong support within the NAM can make a big difference to the outcomes of the impending contentions at the World Health Assembly later this month on reviewing the WHO’s performance during the COVID crisis.