On May 4, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a virtual summit of the Non-Aligned Movement Contact Group under the chairmanship of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev. This was the first time Modi had participated in an NAM meeting since the beginning of his tenure in 2014.
Between 2014 and 2020, two NAM summits were held, in 2016 (Venezuela) and 2019 (Azerbaijan) respectively. At both these summits, India was represented by its vice president. Modi’s absence at both these summits can be analyzed in the context of his constant antagonism for Nehru’s legacy as well as a significant shift of stance in India’s foreign policy from its “non-aligned past” to being “an aligned state today.”
Thus, in this context, Modi’s participation at the latest summit, and his remarks there, hint at a tactical move in his foreign policy.
Modi’s rise in India has coincided with the rise of right-wing nationalism across the world; he has often been likened to U.S. President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsanaro. But Modi’s domestic nationalism rarely reflected on his foreign policy in his first term. The first few months of his second term changed that. Since his re-election in 2019, Modi has been receiving constant pushback from the international community due to certain contentious measures such as the abrogation of Article 370, passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the Delhi riots of February 2020.
Amid this push back, the COVID-19 pandemic has given Modi a chance to adopt a statesman approach and separate himself from his other two companions.
The first step toward this was facing the reality of the pandemic. Modi acknowledged the threat that pandemic possessed in its initial stage and announced a nationwide lockdown, which currently is in its third phase. The sheer acknowledgement, along with undertaking certain proactive measures to tackle the virus, set him apart from Trump, Bolsanaro, and the overall far-right narrative of downplaying the virus.
Simultaneously, the Modi government undertook a proactive approach in its foreign policy with the initiation of a virtual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit on March 15. While it is well-known that SAARC hasn’t been able to catalyze significant regional integration since its initiation in 1985, it nevertheless remained a priority under Modi government 1.0 until the Uri Attack of 2016. Since then, New Delhi has repeatedly asserted that “terror and talks cannot go together” in an attempt to corner Islamabad, thus not letting SAARC function normally. The virtual summit, which witnessed the creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Fund with India pledging a $10 million contribution, signaled a tactical revival in India’s foreign policy, especially in its neighborhood. Additionally, the summit took place in the backdrop of India’s CAA and the possibility of updating its National Register of Citizens (NRC), for which India has received significant criticism from its immediate neighborhood. Thus, through this summit, Modi also attempted to establish that his domestic policies will not affect his international diplomacy, especially at the time of a crisis.
A similar approach has been adapted through Modi’s participation in the recent NAM conference with a focus on a wider international audience. In his intervention at the summit, Modi referred to the importance of “free society” and India’s “democracy” in the fight against the crisis — a clear case of signaling. He also called NAM the “world’s moral voice,” and it is exactly this moral platform that he would want to lead next.
Among the 120 permanent members of the NAM, India is perfectly positioned to emerge as the group’s leader owing to its democratic values and the size of its population and economy. Further, India’s credentials as one of the three founding countries of the NAM, alongside Egypt and erstwhile Yugoslavia, also act in its favor.
For Modi and India, leading the NAM has a dual advantage. First, it is strategically important for Modi to counter his authoritarian and nationalist image on the international platform. Taking a leadership role in the world’s largest multilateral organization will significantly distinguish him from the likes of Trump and Bolsanaro, who have actively pushed back against multilateralism. Further, the NAM also redeems the Nehruvian template of foreign policy, which was widely accepted in the West and the Middle East, two regions from whom Modi has been receiving maximum pushback for almost a year.
Second, as the world expects the emergence of a new global order in the aftermath of COVID-19, emerging middle powers like India are set to play an important role. This is something Modi identified during his NAM intervention, in which he acknowledged the “limitations of the existing international system” and pitched a “new template of globalization, based on fairness, equality, and humanity.” Further, he also insisted on the need for international institutions “to promote human welfare” alongside economic growth, and highlighted India’s “championing” of such initiatives through the International Day of Yoga, the International Solar Alliance, and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.
Further, the rhetoric of a “new cold war” between the United States and China is gaining momentum. In the likelihood of such a scenario, the focus will be back on the NAM — a core collective of middle powers of the world — to play a balancing role. In all likelihood, New Delhi with its current position in the global world order would be keen to lead this middle power balancing through leadership of the NAM within the ambit of South-South cooperation.
New Delhi’s diplomacy during the ongoing pandemic suggests that it has been quick to recognize the changing global dynamics. Modi’s attempt to revive SAARC and go back to the Nehruvian NAM is a clear case of changing approaches during changing circumstances, a policy ploy that was proposed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar last year. For India to exploit opportunities from the position it currently finds itself in, it will be imperative for Modi and his foreign policy to remain consistent with its renewed approach in the times to come.
Ashutosh Nagda is a Researcher with the Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. He is an alumnus of SOAS, University of London.