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India and the UNSC Responsibility

Notwithstanding the euphoria, India’s election to the United Nations Security Council is more of a challenge than a cause for celebration. True, this victory comes after a hiatus of nineteen years and was a cakewalk after Kazakhstan withdrew from the contest earlier this year. Being the only candidate from the Asian region, India needed 128 votes but wanted a decisive election; hence, the heightened diplomatic activities, meetings, phone calls and briefings. According to one estimate, Foreign Minister S M Krishna personally spoke to the representatives of 123 countries. During the month of September alone he held one-to-one meetings with the Foreign Ministers of 56 countries.

The excitement over the number of votes secured by India, 187 out of 192, has to be contextualized.  The emphatic election would perhaps erase India’s bitter experience of 1996 when it lost to Japan by a margin of over 100 votes. At that time, many within the country viewed the Indian defeat as the victory for Japan’s ‘cheque book diplomacy.’ This time around, India is replacing Japan in the UNSC -- at last some consolation. 

In the new Council which comes into effect next January, India would be accompanied by South Africa, Colombia, Germany and Portugal who would be replacing Japan, Uganda, Mexico, Austria and Turkey respectively. The other five non-permanent members whose tenure ends in December 2011 are:  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon, Brazil , Gabon and Nigeria.

The emerging composition of the UNSC offers some interesting possibilities. Many analysts did not fail to highlight the presence of BASIC countries, namely, Brazil, South Africa, India and China. This has raised hopes for a greater cooperation among the emerging political bloc that is increasingly assertive in being noticed globally. Their simultaneous presence in the Council could be seen as a vindication of the growing clout of the developing countries.

At the same time, the new UNSC also presents a number of other combinations.  Among others, it will have BRIC countries, namely, Brazil, Russia, India and China.  More importantly, four out of five aspirants for the permanent membership of the Security Council would be there; namely, Brazil, Germany, India and South Africa. Japan, the other aspirant, would be ending its term in December this year. This combination should intensify demands for reforming the United Nations, especially the powerful Security Council. But only a naïve would expect the permanent members to easily concede and share their monopoly with the newcomers. One thing is certain:  the battle for reforming the UN system will be a major agenda of the next UNSC team.

But restructuring the UN is not co-terminus with a permanent seat for India. New Delhi would have to synchronize its ambitions with the wider interests of the developing world.  It needs to balance its newly-found friendship with Washington with the interests of its erstwhile fellow travellers of the Third World solidarity. Not an easy task.

The election of Germany poses an interesting challenge. For a number of years, it has been an integral part of the western strategy vis-à-vis Iran and its suspected nuclear aspirations. As a member of the P-6 and EU-3, Germany unsuccessfully pursued a diplomatic way-out regarding Iran. Berlin would be in the forefront if the UN were to pursue further sanctions against Tehran. Hence, focusing only on the BASIC countries ignores not only other opportunities but also potential pitfalls.

It is essential to dispel the notion that the Security Council is a high-table, heralding India’s ‘arrival’. Such an approach would not only result in India squandering a valuable opportunity but would also expose its unfamiliarity with great power politics. A number of existing and new problems would test India’s ability to play a meaningful role beyond the immediate confines of South Asia.

Two specific issues would pose severe challenges to India’s diplomatic skills. The Iran file is very much on the table and it is unlikely to be closed any time soon. Its prolonged absence from the UNSC enabled India to argue that Tehran should mitigate and resolve international concerns within the context of its commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  The two votes in the IAEA got India more troubles than it had bargained for; its choice of voting with the US while making pro-Iranian noises proved to be a diplomatic disaster.

Otherwise, India has avoided taking any leadership role over the Iran controversy. This would not be possible after January. Unlike China and Russia, the perceived friends of Iran, abstention is not viable and effective option for India. The cat-on-wall approach towards a critical issue would not take India further.  Being a responsible player would mean defining the core interests, delineation of redlines and ability to communicate clearly not just to the P-5 countries but also to Iran. In short, India should tell the world: this far and not beyond.

Likewise, India would have to balance its stand regarding the ever-present-but-never-ending Middle East peace process. Synchronizing its bilateral interests with Israel and the vagaries of the peace process would be herculean.  The UN is already pre-occupied with the fallouts of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war of 2008-09 and the Flotilla killings. What would be India’s position when these and similar other issues were brought before the UNSC? Will it side with the Arab and Third World countries for stronger measures against Israel, accompanied by condemnation, isolation and sanctions? Or will it side with the US and settle for more watered down positions? Or will it adopt an independent position that recognizes both sides of spectrum and works for a bridging proposal acceptable to the parties concerned.

In short, will India be a camp follower of one or other bloc or try to be a bridge between the two? The former is relatively easier and would not require much imagination; indeed even the widely popular Chitti could do a perfect job than the mandarins of the South Block!

Above all, from now on India would be under greater international scrutiny than ever before. Its public pronouncements and actions would be more closely studied and examined. Periodic off the cuff remarks about China, for example, would have to be shelved for a while. Our mandarins would be finding it difficult to hide behind ‘highly placed sources.’ Likewise, political leaders and ministers who tend to speak out of turn on foreign policy issues would have to restrain themselves lest ‘clarification’ and ‘distancing’ become an integral part of daily briefings at the foreign office.

 A seat in the UNSC is not about membership in an ivy-league or high-power body but it is about shouldering responsibilities, exhibiting maturity, evolving nuanced positions on sensitive issues and skilful use of diplomacy to minimize, if not resolve, major problems confronting the world. It is about working for a more peaceful world and in the process helping India and not other way around. 

Abandoning the temptations of high-sounding rhetoric, India needs to get down to the nitty-gritty of negotiations, compromises and bridging proposals. Bluntly put, foreign policy is not about ignorant rhetoric, simplistic worldviews and wishful thinking but about evolving a more detached and non-sentimental view of the world and its challenges.

The UNSC is the nice place to play a new avatar. Is India ready?

Note: Slightly shorter version was carried by New Indian Express on 20 October 2010.


As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent.   The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy