NAM Summit

Bye-bye NAM?

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Vice President Hamid Ansari and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro greet each other on the eve of the NAM summit, on September 16. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Heads of state and government and other leaders who attended the 17th Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Porlamar, on Venezuela's Margarita Island, on September 17. Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP

India’s growing political and strategic alliance with the U.S. came into sharp focus when Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to skip the NAM summit in Venezuela.

IT has been evident for some time that India is slowly but surely veering away from the principles of non-alignment that defined its foreign policy for more than four decades after Independence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the important Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit held on Venezuela’s Margarita Island on September 13-18 is only a stark illustration of this reality. Previous governments, of both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), had started the process of downgrading the movement founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, Achmed Sukarno, Khwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser—all leaders of anti-colonial struggles—and Josip Broz Tito. The NAM was founded on a common set of principles that included preservation of national sovereignty, rejection of foreign bases, defending the right to self-determination, not joining power blocs such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and fighting for global nuclear disarmament. One of the principal demands of the non-aligned nations was the removal of the foreign military bases that had sprung up in Asia at the onset of the Cold War. The NAM has been demanding the closing down of the American military bases in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and the demilitarisation of the Indian Ocean region.

Now India, once the pre-eminent leader of the NAM, has no compunction about entering into a military alliance with the United States. The growing political and strategic alliance with the U.S. and the shift away from the guiding principles of the NAM came into sharp focus with the signing of the India-U.S. Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in late August. The agreement, which is essentially a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), will give U.S. troops and equipment routine access to Indian military bases. In short, India seems to have given up its time-tested policy of “strategic neutrality”.

At the time U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar signed the LSA in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in New Delhi to attend the second U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue. The U.S. has also designated India as a “major defence partner”. Most of the major recent defence deals India has signed have been with the U.S. In the joint statement issued during the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, both sides once again reiterated the common positions the two countries hold on the contentious South China Sea dispute.

In many capitals of the world, the LSA agreement between India and the U.S. is being viewed from the perspective of President Barack Obama’s military pivot to the East. This is a barely concealed move to militarily encircle China. The tight military and strategic embrace between the U.S. and India comes at a time when a new cold war seems to be on the verge of erupting between the U.S. and Russia. Modi’s decision to absent himself from the NAM summit must have gladdened Washington. Historically, there is no love lost between the U.S. government and the NAM. But what would have made the Obama administration particularly happy with the Indian Prime Minister’s decision was that it would be interpreted as a snub to the Venezuelan government.

U.S. sanctions

The U.S. has been working overtime to bring down the democratically elected Venezuelan government led by President Nicolas Maduro. The Venezuelan government has accused the Obama administration of trying to foment another coup in the country. The U.S. is trying to exploit Venezuela’s domestic turbulence, which was fuelled by the dramatic fall in global oil prices. It has already mobilised many of its allies in the region in its ongoing campaign for regime change in Venezuela. At the NAM summit, member countries unanimously condemned calls for outside intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The NAM has also called for the removal of U.S. sanctions on the country and called on the international community to respect Venezuela’s sovereignty.

The Venezuelan government was looking forward to the presence of the Indian Prime Minister at the summit. Venezuela had postponed it by almost a year to ensure the presence of the Indian Prime Minister along with other world leaders. The summit was originally scheduled to be held in 2015 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, the NAM’s precursor. Modi told the host country last year that prior international commitments made it difficult for him to attend. Modi’s priority that year was to visit a few countries in the Central Asian region. This year he has not bothered to give any excuse for not attending the NAM summit. In August, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez came to New Delhi to personally hand over the invitation letter from the Venezuelan President. Modi, however, could not even find the time to meet her.

During the India-Africa summit held in New Delhi last year, Prime Minister Modi did not even mention the NAM in his inaugural and closing speeches. African countries continue to give the NAM a lot of importance as the support of the organisation was important for the success of the decolonisation struggle. Modi will now have the dubious reputation of being the second Indian Prime Minister, after Charan Singh in 1979, to give the prestigious summit a miss. Charan Singh, however, was only a “caretaker” Prime Minister who was in office for six months. Yashwant Sinha, who was External Affairs Minister in the previous NDA government, was of the view that the Indian Prime Minister should have been present at the NAM summit. He pointed out that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was keen on India continuing to play a key role in NAM deliberations.

India was represented by Vice President Hamid Ansari. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was expected to accompany him, but she, too, preferred to give the summit a miss. It was suggested that health issues prevented her from making the trip. She was however healthy enough to make the long trip to New York to represent India at the annual United Nations General Assembly meet. Margarita is only a few hours away from New York. The NAM, which has 120 members, is the second biggest international grouping after the U.N. Venezuela will hold the NAM presidency until 2019. The theme of this year’s summit was “Peace, Sovereignty and Solidarity for Development”.

India has a realistic chance of entry to the U.N.’s high table, the Security Council, only if it has the support of the non-aligned bloc. Relying exclusively on the West to get Security Council membership, as the UPA and NDA governments have been doing, could prove counterproductive. The Indian External Affairs Ministry statement emphasised that the summit was an important platform for interaction with partner countries in Latin America and Africa. “NAM continues to represent space for action in pursuance of the collective interests of the developing world along with the G-77, especially on subjects such as the reforms of global economic system and disarmament,” it said.

Venezuela announced at the beginning of the summit that it would “spearhead” the move to transform the U.N. system, which is dominated by the U.S. The declaration issued at the end of the NAM summit called for the implementation of speedy reforms. The NAM statement “reiterated the need to recover and strengthen the authority of the General Assembly as the most democratic, accountable, universal and representative body of the organisation”. The statement also called for the reform of the Security Council “in order to transform it into a more democratic, effective, efficient, transparent and representative body, and in line with contemporary geopolitical realities”.

On the growing menace of terrorism, the final NAM declaration stressed that it “constituted one of the most serious threats to international peace and security”. It called on member states to prevent and combat terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations, including its financing and illicit transfer of weapons”. At the same time, the declaration reaffirmed the NAM position that terrorism and violent extremism “should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilisation or ethnic group, and that these attributions should not be used to justify terrorism or counterterrorism measures that include, inter alia, profiling of terror suspects and intrusion of personal privacy”. In his speech at the summit, Vice President Ansari devoted considerable time to the issue of terrorism. The implicit focus was on state-sponsored terrorism from across India’s borders. NAM members did not want to get embroiled in the India-Pakistan diplomatic fracas or the Kashmir dispute. Only once in the history of NAM summits was the Kashmir issue mentioned. In the 1998 NAM summit in Durban, South Africa, Nelson Mandela said that “all of us remain concerned” about the issue of Kashmir and had offered to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the issue.

The member states have committed to further solidify relations among themselves and at the same time build alliances with groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The other priorities listed in the NAM Declaration relate to poverty eradication, promoting peace and addressing the issue of climate change on the world stage. The NAM also condemned the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba and Europe’s refugee policy. The declaration expressed support for the people of Palestine and Puerto Rico in their struggle for independence. Puerto Rico has been an American colony since the end of the 19th century.

In his speech at the summit, Cuban President Raul Castro said that normal relations with the U.S. would only happen after the economic blockade was lifted. “There will be no normal relations before that issue is resolved and other policies harmful to Cuba’s sovereignty are terminated, such as interventionists and subversive programmes,” he said. Castro said that Venezuela’s sovereignty was under attack and reaffirmed Cuba’s “unconditional support to the Venezuelan government and people”. President Maduro, in his closing speech, said that the NAM represented the “struggle of the peoples of the South for their right to peace”. Maduro also announced that a deal between the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and non-OPEC countries was on the anvil to stabilise global oil prices. Despite all the domestic problems Venezuela is facing, it managed to host the NAM summit with finesse and professionalism.

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