Ever had the experience of happily proffering a legitimate excuse not to attend a dull party only to have the host say, “Hey, if you’re unavailable this weekend, we can reschedule for when you’re free" ?Now you’re doomed to spend a tedious evening with equally uninterested people in a nondescript suburb, getting to which involves 90 minutes in stop-go-stop traffic. If you’re lucky, the beer will be properly chilled.
Narendra Modi faced a similar situation a year ago, when he declined Venezuela’s invitation to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit. I’d really have loved to come, he told the chaps from Caracas, but I have a bunch of stans to visit this month: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and what’s the last one, yes, right, Kyrgyzstan. The Venezuelans replied, all right then, let’s do it next year, surely you aren’t booked that far ahead? Shifting the event was a massive deal, since the Non-Aligned Movement has held summits every three years since 1970. You and I would have felt obliged to go, but Narendra Modi is made of sterner stuff. It looks like he will not attend the party that was postponed specially for him. Without a Tajikistan escape route, it’s the equivalent of calling the host and saying, “Listen, I appreciate you shifting the dates and all that, but the truth is I’ve moved on, I’m really not into this scene any more.”
There are good reasons not to be into the non-alignment scene. It calls itself a movement, but all motion ceased years ago. Built as a response to the Cold War, it has floundered in the years since the wall’s fall, unable to find a guiding idea to negotiate the changed geopolitical terrain. It was never good at solving internal disputes anyway, a feeling underlined at the previous summit which was hosted by Tehran and attended by nations that, with few exceptions, had voted to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear skulduggery.
If India is sloughing off the non-aligned skin, what is replacing it? The frantic diplomatic exchanges currently in progress between Washington and New Delhi provide a clue. In the last couple of days, the US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker met with her counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Secretary of State John Kerry got stuck in a jam in Chanakyapuri, and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar went to Washington to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with his counterpart Ashton Carter. This agreement has been negotiated endlessly, but the previous United Progressive Alliance government dithered over signing it. The Congress was probably wary after having faced a backlash against the US-India civil nuclear agreement. That deal gave us entry into a club from which we’d been barred for three decades, but the Indian Opposition and media, and some of the United Progressive Alliance’s main allies, not only looked the gift horse in the mouth but kicked it in the shins. If the nuclear pact was interpreted as compromising national sovereignty, what would be said about something like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement? Sure, the agreement was phrased in the language of balance, reciprocity and parity, but how many Indian ships were going to refuel in Guam?
A momentous shift
The logistics agreement is the first of three that are likely to be signed in rapid succession. The Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement are next in line. None of the treaties is radical or even objectionable in itself, but they do signify a momentous shift in India’s foreign policy. We have moved from being an actively non-aligned nation with some bias towards the Soviet Union to one manifestly uninterested in non-alignment and drawing close to the US orbit.
Last year, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar spoke of India’s changing priorities while delivering the IISS Fullerton Lecture in Singapore. “The transition in India”, he said, “is an expression of greater self-confidence. Its foreign policy dimension is to aspire to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.”
If that’s our aspiration, then signing these three agreements is a strange way of getting there.
Let’s not kid ourselves, India is never going to be the star when the US is in the same movie. These agreements are like auditions for the role of the sidekick or wingman, someone who’s good for a few laughs and maybe has a moment or two in the spotlight.
Within the group of non-aligned nations, on the other hand, India has always been a major player. The fact that Venezuela shifted a multilateral summit by a year to accommodate Modi proves it. It might make sense to switch from starring in low-budget flops to playing minor characters in blockbusters, but the best choice is probably the cautious one of keeping all options open. Years from now, we may wish Modi had attended that boring party in Venezuela after all.