Like all things under the sun, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had its time and its context. Considering that Jawaharlal Nehru was the one who coined the term ‘non-alignment’ in 1954, with India playing a major role in the movement’s development, we should know the value it once had as a viable strategy in a world inhabited by two rival superpowers. By the 1960s, non-alignment had become a euphemism for a subtle ‘partnership’ with the Soviet Union. By the time the Soviet Union and the Cold War disappeared, NAM was left up the creek without a paddle. All this the Indian government knows and in the changed scenario, New Delhi has shown less enthusiasm about non-alignment — in the post-Cold War sense of playing David to America’s Goliath — than a card-carrying NAM member-State would be expected to.
So US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not wrong when she stated in Washington that “[NAM] had lost its meaning” and that it would make sense for India to think and act in terms of a partnership with the United States. Even without Ms Rice’s gentle prodding, New Delhi has been working to firm up closer bilateral relations with Washington. The problem is that Ms Rice said it. American enthusiasm at building closer ties with India can at times be akin to the kiss of death. As we winced on hearing the words of the Secretary of State and hoped against hope that no one in India heard them, we could not help but think that perhaps Washington, not so much New Delhi, may be caught in a time-warp where the US cajoles and the rest of the world ‘does’. One doesn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool anti-American to see where Ms Rice overstepped her mark.
Like any other strategy, non-alignment, even in its very ‘non-non-aligned’ Cold War-era form, was about national interest. It seems clear that it is national interest that drives not only New Delhi’s lukewarm approach to NAM these days but also its growing closeness to Washington. At the same time, the bulwark against an American bear-hug comes in other forms today. With a loose commonality of interests, for instance, with countries like Brazil and Russia and a perceived rivalry with China, India has groupings other than NAM to further its national interest. Diplomacy and partnerships are no longer zero-sum games as they may have been during the Cold War. The US should know that despite making occasional utterances (such as making a connection between the Iran gas pipe project and the Indo-US nuclear deal), there is not too much it can do to reverse the realpolitik games that emerging countries like India will play. NAM is an anachronistic body that may not have tweaked itself with the times. But Ms Rice is wrong to have not realised that her intended gentle push has made an ongoing process — developing closer Indo-US relations — look like a shove.