India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York, during a visit to the United States, September 28, 2014.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Throughout the past several decades, it would have been heresy to suggest that India’s foreign policy was based on anything other than nonalignment. The doctrine, which had its origins in the early Cold War and was based on the idea that its adherents could steer a course between the two superpowers and establish a more just and peaceable world order, had an almost talismanic quality for India’s foreign policy establishment. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this sentiment was the publication of Nonalignment 2.0 in 2014 by several highly regarded former Indian policymakers and noted analysts, who sought to give the doctrine new life. Even now, the Nonaligned Movement is known for passing hoary resolutions calling for Security Council reform and for a more equitable global economic order.

That is why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the Non-Aligned Summit in Margarita, Venezuela, last week has elicited a fair share of commentary in New Delhi. The summit, which India has attended annually, is ostensibly meant to address a range of common concerns among the membership. In reality, it is best known for overblown rhetoric and little or no substance.

Most commentators have lamented Modi’s decision. Writing in the widely read online Indian newspaper The Wire, one commentator, Arun Mohan Sukumar, stated that, “the fact is that the Nonaligned Movement is a multilateral institution that still holds promise for Indian diplomacy.” Those who disagree with Modi’s move have sought to attribute it to one or two possible motives. One argument holds that Modi is self-consciously attempting to distance himself from the foreign policy legacy of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the principal architect of independent India’s foreign policy. According to this line of thinking, Modi is charting a different course because he is personally skeptical of Nehru’s legacy, which he sees as much too idealistic and lacking an understanding of the role of material power in international politics, but also believes that the movement is anachronistic.

Another theory is that Modi skipped the summit to curry favor with the United States, since the body’s president, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, is at odds with the country. Those who hold this view argue that Modi is keen on pleasing the United States to bolster defense ties and to attract foreign investment.

Whatever his reasons, Modi’s critics lament his decision because they believe that it will inevitably hurt India’s standing in what they see as an important third-world caucus. It is a venue in which India can forge strong coalitions among the states of the global South to promote common interests. As a former minister of external affairs, Salman Khurshid, declared on the eve of the summit, “If PM Modi doesn’t wish to honor NAM, it will just show that the government is dumping all former foreign policy in a wholesale manner.” Or more to the point, as an advocate of the movement, writing in the left-leaning Indian newspaper The Hindu last week, stated, “What should be the contours of the emerging multipolar world? How would the new poles tackle the different problems of poverty and joblessness?” But beyond highlighting the stated goals of the organization, the boosters of the Nonaligned Movement have little else to proffer.

To put it bluntly, though, the movement has long outlived its mission and usefulness—and that is why Modi shunned it. When the Nonaligned Movement was born in 1961 at the insistence of Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, it was relevant. Among other things, it promoted decolonization, campaigned for global nuclear disarmament, and sought to reduce global economic disparities. There is little or no question that it did succeed in delegitimizing colonialism. It likewise helped contribute to the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and it did place the issue of global economic disparities on the international agenda. Meanwhile, it steered a course between the two superpowers and helped its member countries, to a very limited extent, avoid getting enmeshed in their ideological struggle.

Over time, however, as the political scientist Fouad Ajami has argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs, it had come to suffer from a series of self-inflicted wounds. While they pressed for nuclear disarmament, many of the member countries frittered away money on a range of weaponry despite the absence of compelling threats to national security. Others, while calling for the reduction in global economic inequities, did little to address the needs of their own populations. Not surprisingly, the movement, which once claimed a high moral ground, quickly lost it.

Worse still, since the movement had no mechanism for checking the credentials of its members, virtually any state could declare itself to be nonaligned. Indeed the problem became downright comical when, in 1979, a nonaligned summit was held in Havana with Fidel Castro as the host. 

At the end of the Cold War, foreign policy analysts believed that the movement would quietly disband itself. However, despite its lack of relevance in a post–Cold War world, the movement’s leadership saw no reason to give it the decent burial it deserved. India's policy makers, in particular, seemed particularly attached to it as a forum for the weak in a world of the strong. Given the high regard for Nehru in India’s long-dominant Congress Party, few party members, if any, dared challenge the prevailing view.

Even a break in Congress rule in the 1990s did not bring about an abandonment of the cause. Admittedly, there was less hoary public invocation of the doctrine, but attendance at the periodic summits remained de rigeur for the prime minister. Of course, when a Congress-led coalition did return to power, adherence to the movement was not a matter of debate. 

Modi, with a clear-cut majority in parliament for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and determined to chart a new foreign policy course for India, has finally challenged that shibboleth. He had already indicated that he was willing to break the mold last year, when he hosted U.S. President Barack Obama as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade—a shocking move because India had long shied away from making such an obvious display of regard for the United States. For Modi, moreover, making common cause with the global South no longer makes sense for India. He realizes that such countries cannot be routinely counted upon to form working coalitions with India at critical global forums to pursue common aims in areas ranging from climate change to global trade.  

And so, it is time for a new path. Despite a range of domestic ills that continue to dog the country, Modi envisages India as a great power in the making. Such status cannot be attained through attachment to a bygone creed. Only a closer partnership (but expressly not a tutelage) with the United States, in his judgment, can give the country the necessary leverage and, crucially, deal with the strategic uncertainties associated with the rise of China. 

His view is hardly universal. Most in Congress still harbor qualms about the United States and doubt its reliability as a strategic partner. Even some in the BJP display reflexive and unthinking anti-Americanism—although it is rarely voiced in public.  In 2010, for example, the BJP felt compelled to distance itself from the remarks of its then-spokesman, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, for some hostile remarks he made on the eve of Obama’s visit.  

Firmly ensconced in office, Modi’s associates in the BJP have no incentive to take potshots at the United States. More to the point, they are likely to rally behind Modi as he seeks to place the Indo-U.S. relationship on a more secure footing. Furthermore, like Modi, they have little or no use for Nehru’s legacy of idealism in foreign affairs and wish to see India adopt a pragmatic and muscular foreign policy.

Modi has made an important gamble in giving the Non-Aligned Summit a pass. If it pays off, India’s foreign policy may never be the same.

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  • SUMIT GANGULY holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
  • More By Sumit Ganguly