16/09/2016 2:17 PM IST | Updated 22/09/2016 8:29 AM IST

Modi's Absence At NAM: Reading Between The Lines

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

As 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) met between 13-15 September in Venezuela's Margarita Island, the Indian Prime Minister was conspicuous by his absence. In fact, Narendra Modi was the first Indian PM to give the NAM summit a miss; the country was instead represented by Vice President Hamid Ansari. Modi's decision to skip the 17th NAM summit has thrown up many questions. Here is a brief analysis.

A strategic step

Modi's absence is certainly being seen as a re-orientation of India's foreign policy. NAM has been India's hallmark policy objective throughout the Cold War, and all Prime Ministers hitherto have attended NAM summits with the exception of Charan Singh who was serving as a caretaker PM in 1979. To that extent, Prime Minister Modi's decision to opt out of the Venezuela meet raised eyebrows. However, on scratching the surface it is clear that the decision is anything but sudden. India's foreign policy under Modi is being recalibrated, which is something that is being reflected in recent decisions.

India's growing proximity to the USA, particularly in the defence sector, is an indication that India stands distanced from its NAM past.

For one, the Modi government has decided to prioritize its "national interests". Within this agenda, delinking India's foreign policy from the Nehruvian past is a characteristic, albeit tacit goal. For instance, in July earlier there were reports of Jawaharlal Nehru being removed from class VII textbooks in BJP-ruled Rajasthan. India's growing proximity to the USA, particularly in the defence sector, is another indication that India stands distanced from its NAM past.

The post Cold War era has seen a re-orientation of geopolitics that has required not just India but other countries to change their traditional foreign policy stances. Many of such policy shifts of the 21st century have come at ideological costs, be it America's watershed rapprochement with Cuba under the Obama administration or the recent US-Russia deal on Syria. As such, ideological moorings alone cannot be the basis of foreign policy in today's economically and politically integrated world.

Is it a positive or negative development?

In today's integrated economic and political world order, a group of three or four strong NAM countries can hardly sustain themselves in isolation, leave alone oppose or block a decision by great powers. Modi's absence at the NAM summit, thus, should not be seen as a setback for India's foreign policy traditions.

NAM is a concept that originated during the peak of the Cold War and was meant to distance a few countries from the two superpower blocs. The post-Cold War era, particularly the 21st century, has witnessed a multipolar rise with the G7 and G20 countries leading from the front. India, at least in the past decade, has emerged as a potential power bloc itself with one of the biggest militaries and one of the fastest GDP growths.

Ideological moorings alone cannot be the basis of foreign policy in today's economically and politically integrated world.

Given these realities, it would serve India better to pursue its realistic goals pragmatically. Besides, India is not conducting its foreign policy completely devoid of its NAM ideology. Although the stakeholders might have changed, India is firmly grouped with the BRICS countries and stresses on South-South cooperation.

How does it reflect on the government's overall foreign policy paradigm?

The present government has adopted a deliberate, albeit nuanced approach that delinks Modi's policies from that of Nehru. This is not to say that the present government is at "war" with Nehruvian ideology, even though this might sometimes appear to be the case. Every government strives to make a mark of its own and leave behind a legacy. The UPA government did it through its nuclear deal with the US, and the Modi government is trying to do so through its vigorous diplomacy. However, it will be best to assess these moves by asking strategic questions: for instance, is flaunting NAM membership going to benefit India more or a strategic LEMOA deal with the US? Will India benefit more from an India-Egypt-Iran-etc like grouping or from its growing informal alliance with the USA?

A possible rationale for Modi's decision may rest in a relative assessment of some of the other members of the so-called NAM alliance and how distanced they are from the West. As most NAM members are at the receiving end of West-backed economic doles, sustaining NAM's conventional heritage, its structure, and its compartmentalized ideology is proving to be increasingly difficult.

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