During these unprecedented times dictated by the deadly virus, Covid-19, the world leaders are inventing a gamut of policies, both indigenous and foreign, to deal with the crippling crisis and its dramatic consequences. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his creative and innovative instincts, has come up with quite a few. Some are encouraging and others baffling. I mention two, addressing SAARC members, and the NAM meeting, which befuddle the observers on the strategic thinking in the South Block. At best, it could be a moral gesture to talk to anyone in such a humongous human crisis as never experienced before. At its worst, it clutters India’s alliance-making.
However, in a pragmatic assessment, New Delhi has reversed Lenin’s useful advice, “It is necessary sometimes to take one step backward to take two steps forward”. South Block seems to have taken two steps backward, which means it has retreated in confusion, course correction or something bad has happened to make it do so. Any of these reasons do onto explain New Delhi going back to SAARC and NAM, and what is more, like in the recent past, with our ambiguous position on China, it could confuse our friends and allies.
First, let us demystify the moral dimension. Foreign policy is driven by national interest, nor moral imperatives. Remember, Shashi Tharoor endorsing Lord Bhikhu Parikh’s debunking of Nehru’s foreign policy, “Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy was a tad too preachy…. and was more like a moralistic running commentary”. Agree that it is a time for reaching out to people. But we could talk to many other people and leaders, like the External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar did. Not many in Delhi’s political, bureaucratic, and even commentariat will be able to find a country called Saint Vincent and Grenadines on the world map. But the EAM has called last week the foreign minister of this tiny country formed by many islands. The choice of forum is strategic: SAARC is unworkable and NAM is unusable.
New Delhi boycotted and got others to withdraw from the SAARC meetings on the specific ground that ‘terror and talks cannot go together’. In 2014, Modi invited SAARC leaders for his swearing in ceremony. New Delhi refused to attend the summit in Islamabad in 2016 over the Uri attacks; it also persuaded members such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan not to participate and ‘diplomatically isolate’ Pakistan.
In 2019, in keeping with the line that SAARC will not work unless Pakistan stops sponsoring terrorism, in 2019, Modi did not repeat the invitation for his second swearing-in to SAARC members. Instead, New Delhi invited leaders from the new regional outfit BIMSTEC comprising Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan to the Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration on 30 May, signaling the primacy of neighborhood and economic diplomacy, as well as connectivity in Modi’s second term in office.
In 2020, intriguingly, Modi called a video-conference of SAARC leaders to discuss Covid-19. It helped him take the spotlight and secure a bit of diplomatic praise from the United States, Russia and others. Was that the objective though? What prompted Modi to do so is beyond any comprehension as he had taken a strong position on SAARC because of Pakistan. He could have addressed BIMSTEC leaders.
Pakistan was represented by its junior health Minister Zafar Agha. The Pakistani representative raised Kashmir even in this meeting, and they have not stopped terrorist attacks there. Last Saturday, two high ranking officers — a colonel, a major — and two soldiers lost their lives to terror attacks. What purpose did a SAARC meeting serve except creating confusion! Do we want SAARC or BIMSTEC which seems smoother or both which is imprudent and impractical?
One possible explanation is that Modi was under some pressure. The theory is, member nations such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who had earlier tacitly succumbed to New Delhi’s nudging to give the 2016 SAARC Summit a miss, ‘eventually got exasperated and started pressing Modi to bury the hatchet and come around’. Probability of this assumption is minimal as New Delhi will not be swayed from its conviction that one could not do business with perfidious Pakistan. So stepping backward into SAARC is inexplicable.
What is more of shocking surprise is Modi addressing the NAM meeting which is long past its expiry date. After SAARC, NAM makes a double-whammy for India’s foreign policy. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a cold war-era grouping of countries had held its first conference in 1961 with Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito being in attendance at Belgrade. It was largely the brainchild of Nehru. Observers in the know of Nehru’s penchant for international recognition and fame contend that he created such a forum to be counted as a world leader of a large group.
From then on, NAM was not able to hold its ground as member countries needed the support of either of the big powers either in military or economic terms or both. India herself could not hold its Non-aligned position in 1956 and in Bangladesh war in 1971. Nehru tilted towards Soviet Union for its veto support in UNSC on Kashmir. In 1956, two invasions took place; one was the Anglo-French attack on Suez Canal and the other, Soviet occupation of Hungary. Nehru was vocally critical of Suez attack, but was quiet on Hungary, blackmailed by Soviets on Kashmir. In 1971, in apprehension of American engagement in the Bangladesh conflict, India signed a Friendship Treaty with Soviet Union in violation of the spirit and practice of non-alignment.
Modi’s foreign policy dispensation had correctly assessed the futility of continuing with NAM. New Delhi has made many alignments with countries, mainly with the US. It has formed Quad with US, Japan, Australia. It has a trilateral informal group consisting of Japan, America and India. Modi coined the acronym of this grouping called JAI (victory). Announcing the death of NAM from India’s point of view, Vijay Gokhale, the then Foreign Secretary stated, “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned State”. In parenthesis he added – “but based on issues.” He was speaking at a panel of the Raisina Dialogue 2019.
However, Modi addressing the virtual summit of NAM, said, “even as the world fights Covid-19, some people are busy spreading other deadly viruses, such as terrorism, such as fake news, and doctored videos to divide communities and countries”. He could have uttered these words in any forum. By raising terrorism in NAM, what support was he expecting?
To conclude, one wonders if Modi is beginning to have Nehru hangover in foreign policy: to be noted, counted and praised and so on. That is unlikely as BJP has nothing but disdain for anything Congress, and its foreign policy is based on negating Nehruvian paradigm. So what is it that prompted Modi to flog a dead horse like NAM, and by reviving SAARC undermine his and his party’s resolve in isolating Pakistan! I am out of my wits, may be, government has cards up its sleeves that ordinary mortals like us are unaware of.