The summit meeting of nonaligned nations, beginning in New Delhi on March 7, will represent a dramatic change. Cuba will turn over the movement's presidency to India, giving the group an opportunity to gain greater credibility in the world.
India, a key founder, hopes to bring the movement back on the rails. That also appears to be the wish of the majority. But the nations who act as stalking-horses for either East or West are active in espousing their causes in a group whose rationale was to steer clear of the superpowers.
The movement has, indeed, come a long way since its formal inauguration in Belgrade in 1961 with the participation of 25 countries. This seventh summit will have nearly 100 participating countries.
India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugo-slavia's Josip Broz Tito had proclaimed as early as 1954 that they had adopted and were pursuing nonaligned policies. Together with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, they were the movement's founding members.
The phenomenal growth of the nonaligned movement explains both its strength and itsweakness. Nearly every developing country has felt the need to proclaim nonalignment. But the movement has become unwieldy and amorphous and split into various groups and factions.
The starting point for nonalignment was a shared anti-colonialism and, in the heyday of the cold war, peace and disarmament. But in a more basic sense, the concept was the answer for countries such as India, which were poorer and backward and yet desired to play a role in the world. They were determined, above all, not to be ever again in a subservient relationship with the West.
An initial anti-Western slant was thus inevitable and was skillfully exploited by the Soviet Union. But the cold war gave way to detente and nonalignment seemed to have lost its momentum just when it had become respectable, in contrast to former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's memorable description of it as being immoral.
There were also problems in the three countries that had launched nonalignment. The post-Nehru era was difficult for India, entangled as it was in conflicts with China and Pakistan and with a host of domestic problems. Nasser's legacy proved costly for Egypt, and Yugoslavia was preoccupied with post-Tito problems even during the lifetime of the longest surviving member of the trinity of founding fathers.
Then in the Havana summit of the nonaligned in 1979, Cuba tried to hijack the movement by having it proclaimed that the socialist countries were the ''natural allies'' of the nonaligned. That move was decisively defeated, thanks to Tito, among others, and the majority could only wait until the end of Cuba's three-year term as chairman.
Now that time has arrived. The Iran-Iraq war forced a change of venue from Baghdad to New Delhi, and it has fallen to India's lot to revitalize the movement. In a sense, the movement's chairmanship has come as a godsend to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She has been seeking to steer a more middle course between the superpowers to deemphasize the close links with the Soviet Union, symbolized by the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971. The attempt is to increase India's diplomatic options, particularly after the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.
Essentially, India's policy is to be nonaligned within the nonaligned movement, thus being part of the mainstream of about 50 countries. About 40 countries, roughly in equal number, are more inclined to tilt toward one or the other superpower.
The contentious political problems for the nonaligned in New Delhi are Afghanistan and Kampuchea. Final positions on Afghanistan will ask for the withdrawal of foreign forces and no outside interference. Kampuchea's seat is likely to remain vacant. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has campaigned to prevent the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin regime from being seated.
On the Caribbean, the consensus will pretty nearly be against American intervention. And in the Mideast, everyone will join in condemning Israel and will support Palestinian rights, criticizing the United States by implication, if not explicitly, on its role.
Although political issues will provide the fireworks, India is hoping to get the conference to focus on issues of development, trade, peace, and disarmament. The attempt will be to revive the stalled North-South dialogue by toning down customary rhetoric. With the communists having conveniently decided to stand aloof, the West is the only interlocutor for the South. This has in the past given a handle to many to bash the West. But the present economic and monetary crisis is too serious to be resolved by histrionics.
Peace and disarmament have again become issues, with detente discredited in Washington and the superpowers in a more confrontational posture toward each other. Unburdened by nuclear arms, the nonaligned will have no problem in coming out for nuclear disarmament.
An old Indian statesman had once quipped that nonalignment would have had to be invented if it did not exist. That aphorism holds good today. The movement is , at the very least, a sounding board for the third world's problems. To the extent it regains the high moral ground of its birth, it will have a notable influence in a troubled world.