NAM, no Sham!

Chavez told Manmohan Singh that he had read his South Commission report (a strongly progressive document) during his days of incarceration and wondered why he did not work towards its implementation
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

The last edition of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) took place in Red Sea’s famous Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Its clear emerald-coloured waters have enticed divers from all over the world. For quite a while it was under Israeli occupation till its improved ties with Egypt restored Sharm-el-Sheikh’s original ownership. Favoured by budget travellers from Russia in search of sun and sea, Sharm-el-Sheikh failed to yield a coherent answer to the big question posed consistently by the detractors of NAM about its relevance in a contemporary world where there are no blocs.

The summit was chaired by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose expressionless, botoxed presence did nothing to provide direction to a movement that seemed to be going nowhere. Worse, the summit came a few months after Mubarak’s leadership and legitimacy had been tested in the bloody riots in El-Mohallah-el-Kubra. Egypt’s ambivalence towards Israel did not really endear Mubarak to all those countries that trace the Palestinian cause as a legacy of neo-imperialism and the never-ending misery of its people one of the causatory factors giving strength to Islamic radicalism.

Save for perfunctory noises, the summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh failed to explore plausible working solutions for the debilitating economic crisis that had hit the world in 2008. The desire to change the global financial architecture was paid lip service, but there were no ideas that were coming from there. Why blame the Egyptians? The burden of making NAM a success rests on the big countries of South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Indeed, one of the founders of the movement, India, gives an impression of not knowing what to do: to go in or get out.

It is such a change from the days in 1953 when India’s VK Krishna Menon coined the phrase, “non-aligned movement” to delineate countries that were not aligned to any bloc in the Cold War world. Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah and Tito gave shape to their vision of such countries that strove to preserve their sovereignty against forces of neo-imperialism and colonialism. Those were heady days of idealism for countries mired in poverty and backwardness that looked at India for leadership. Since then, a lot of dirty water has flown down the poisoned rivers of India. After the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, NAM has struggled for a meaning.


In the last 10 years or so, the country’s leadership has begun to believe that India has arrived as it sits alongside western powers on the high table at the G-20 meet. Many people in the ruling establishment find it distasteful that India has to hang out with poor impoverished countries during the NAM conference. This contradiction has been starkly visible ever since New Delhi found itself in tight embrace of the US.

In the Havana summit in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked starkly uncomfortable in his interactions with the likes of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who had reportedly beseeched India that it should take over the leadership of NAM. In his meeting, he reportedly told Singh that he had read his South Commission report (a strongly progressive document, quite in contrast to the hardened neo-liberal image of the PM) during his days of incarceration and wondered why he did not work towards its implementation. The Cubans, too, did not seem happy with India’s diffidence.

To sidestep such demands, India has used NAM to fast track its engagement with Pakistan. In 2006 and 2009, the PM’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart hogged all the headlines. In Havana, both the countries decided to put together an anti-terror mechanism with the PM admitting that Pakistan, too, was a victim of terror. Controversy dogged the meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh when Baluchistan figured in the joint statement.

The Tehran summit is taking place when the incessant beating of war drums can be heard emanating from Jerusalem and the western capitals. NAM member Syria is in the throes of serious turbulence. The Iranian leadership, that sees the NAM summit as a way to reach out its case to a larger world community, should be mindful of an unhappy coincidence: the character of some nations changed after they hosted NAM. In 1989, Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, hosted the summit. Yugoslavia does not exist any longer. In 2011, when Egypt was chairing NAM, the Mubarak government was set aside by the tectonic wave of crowd power. It will be interesting to watch how Tehran manages a status-quo in its own country, as well as in Syria, coincidentally, also called Shaam in Arabic!


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012