This is the first NAM summit that will not be attended by an Indian PM, except for 1979 when caretaker PM Charan Singh skipped the summit in Havana. On Thursday, vice-president Hamid Ansari left for Venezuela’s Margarita Island, where the 17th NAM summit opened on Tuesday, and will continue till 18 September.
Much has been made of Modi’s decision to skip the summit, considering that NAM counts Jawaharlal Nehru as one of its founding fathers. It is believed that the pursuit of a US-centric foreign policy could be one of the main reasons, since one of NAM’s founding principles was to stay neutral during the Cold War.
“We have been aligned with the Americans post globalization. And it’s not just happened under Modi. Even the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) did it. They staked their government over the nuclear deal. India’s engagement with the US has been a continuous process; in fact, we can even say PM Modi is reaping the harvests of previous regimes," says Pushpesh Pant, former professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
According to Pant, NAM as a concept was relevant in a bi-polar world; “but the world order has changed since then and now our association with it can mostly be seen as nostalgic". A news report by The Hindu, dated 19 August, quoted foreign secretary S. Jaishankar as saying, “Blocs and alliances are less relevant today and the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order."
But does this mean India should be ready to dismiss NAM? Former foreign secretary B. Sashank feels that while NAM is still around, “we (India) feel we have other interests we should keep in mind." He cites China’s attempts to enlarge its footprint in the Indian Ocean as one pressing concern, apart from, of course, Pakistan.
The China issue is, in fact, raised by Harsh Pant, professor at Observer Research Foundation, while explaining why NAM is not so relevant to India today. “Our key national interest is to become one of the central pillars of global politics and it seems as if China is the biggest stumbling block. A lot of India’s foreign policy is about managing China today. There are multiple poles emerging in the world and the US is at the centre of them all. It’s clear what India needs to focus on."
According to Harsh Pant and Sashank, the problem with NAM has always been that even in a bloc, individual nations have made foreign policy decisions based on national interest and en bloc support has rarely happened.
“NAM can still act as a club, developing countries can come together. They can take the agenda forward, in that it remains useful," said Sashank.
The ministry of external affairs in a statement, however, stressed upon the relevance of NAM.
“NAM continues to represent space for action in pursuance of the collective interests of the developing world… especially on subjects such as the reform of the global economic system and disarmament. At the United Nations, NAM is an influential grouping on a range of issues such as UN peacekeeping and disarmament."
The host country Venezuela is, meanwhile, reeling under a severe economic crisis with its economy shrinking (-8%, according to International Monetary Fund figures) and the world’s worst inflation rate (482%). There have been reports of food riots and the government has declared a state of emergency. In fact, to host the NAM summit, President Nicolas Maduro has reportedly shut down Margarita Island. News reports state that nearly 14,000 National Bolivarian Armed Forces troops, police and intelligence personnel have been deployed on the island.
In her inaugural speech, Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez said, “Emancipation, anti-imperialism and peace are the flags that define the XVII NAM Summit Venezuela 2016."
According to the ministry of external affairs, the summit is expected to deliberate on the issues of contemporary relevance and concerns such as terrorism, UN reform, the situation in West Asia and climate change, among others.
The concern over terrorism does not come as a surprise, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation to combat terrorism by not just targeting terrorists but by also supporting the ecosystem at the recently concluded ASEAN and G20 summit.