Being the founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade in 1961, it would suit us perfectly to say to its other 119 members: “Rishte mey toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain, NAM hai India.” (With due apologies to Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah).
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads to Tehran tomorrow to attend the 16th NAM summit, amidst growing scepticism whether such a motley group of nations can achieve anything worthwhile, other than raise the pitch and decibel of criticism against the West. Well past its glory days, NAM summits are now mostly ignored by the international media. With 120 member-nations representing more than half of humanity, the grouping though can never be completely irrelevant.
India hosted the NAM summit in New Delhi in 1983. Those were the heydays of NAM. For Mrs. Indira Gandhi, it was her “Yes, we can” moment. She had given strict instructions to her secretariat that things should function smoothly as India’s prestige was at stake. The chief coordinator of the summit was Natwar Singh, who later went on to become India’s foreign minister. Rajiv Gandhi attended some of the meetings, as did the Chief of R&AW, Director of Intelligence Bureau, Delhi Transport department and Civil Aviation officials. The Chief of Protocol was a young IFS officer called Hamid Ansari who is today India’s Vice President.
A core team of government professionals, which included Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs with a pugnacious sense of humour, handled the media division. Aiyar held his first briefing for the media where he repeated a couple of times that the journalists should get the spelling of his name right. Not Iyer but Aiyar. Unknown to him, standing at the door was his boss Natwar Singh who was not amused. Another young IFS officer, Salman Haider, who was later India’s foreign secretary, was inducted to assist the media instead of Aiyar. Mani Shankar Aiyar later became a Union Minister but his run-ins with Natwar Singh were legendary.
On the day of the summit, Indira Gandhi, clad in a yellow and green silk saree, arrived early at the Vigyan Bhavan, which had been spruced up for the occasion. She walked up and down the aisles, got the flower arrangements redone and crisply passed orders. There were no cell phones those days. Her media advisor, Sharada Prasada shuttled from the auditorium to the portico, where Mrs Gandhi was to receive guests, ensuring that Madam’s orders were carried out precisely. One by one, the heads of state and governments came in, shook hands with the host and walked into the cavernous hall.
The meet began but soon there was utter confusion; albeit in a nice way. Fidel Castro of Cuba, while handing over the Chairmanship of NAM to India, gave Indira Gandhi a bear hug. Mrs Gandhi, known to be undemonstrative was not awkward in the embrace. The newspapers would surely front page the still photograph of the Prime Minister being hugged. But should Doordarshan show the visuals? Government officials went into a huddle.
There were no private television channels then, and the only visuals seen by Indians were on Doordarshan. Then the orders came from the very top. There was no need to black out the visuals. A fleeting shot of the ‘hug’ made it to the two news bulletins on television.
There was a lot of curiosity in the media to speak or get a quote from some of the visiting dignitaries: Kenneth Kaunda, Robert Mugabe, Hosni Mubarak, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Zia ul Haq and Julius Jayawardane. But it wasn’t a time when leaders were very obliging to the media. Besides the speeches at the summit, very few of them spoke in public.
Quite a marked change from what a NAM meet now is. The last summit in 2009 in Sharm-el-Sheikh was something that Dr Manmohan Singh will not forget. His tête-à-tête with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani resulted in the Sharm document, which gave Pakistanis the impression that India was ready to move on beyond 26/11, even though Pakistan had not brought the perpetrators of the terror strike to justice. Moreover, it brought on to the table some wild accusation of Indian meddling in Balochistan province of Pakistan.
Gilani is no longer the PM of Pakistan, M K Narayanan is no longer the National Security Advisor and the Sharm document is long forgotten. But NAM can always throw up surprises. Who knows… after all, Zardari is in town in Tehran.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash