While the world was engaged more on ending the Ukraine war because it was immediate with oil prices and food availability becoming a global concern, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made an equal pitch on another topic, which if solved in good time could have saved the day. On the much talked-about and equally undelivered UN reforms, especially that of the all-important Security Council, or UNSC, what Jaishankar said outside the official fora was more important than what India had been saying inside for very many years.
India not sitting as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is ‘not good for us only but also not good for the global body, and its transformation is overdue’, Jaishankar said, in a conversation with former NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, days ahead of his twin addresses at the UNSC and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).
In a way, it was a reflection on India’s new-found assertiveness that found first real expression in Jaishankar ticking off Western Europe on their criticism some months earlier. First, it was at his ministry-backed Raisina Dialogue at Delhi in April, followed by the Bratislava Forum in Slovakia, in June. It all centred on New Delhi purchasing cheap Russian oil, defying the US-led sanctions, about which India was not even consulted in advance. In particular, Jaishankar reflected India’s irritation at the West preaching gospel to India when European allies of the US were still purchasing piped gas from Russia to keep themselves warm.
For years now, India has been with all those nations that have been calling for early reforms of the UNSC, but its voice used to be weak and ‘balanced’. Oftentimes, New Delhi would canvas support for a permanent seat for India in an expanded Security Council at the bilateral-level but used to confine its public posturing, both within the UN and outside, to what began as appeals, then calls and later demands. Mostly, they were all in the company of such other aspirational nations, say, Brazil, Germany and Japan.
Yet, the minister reserved his best this time for the General Assembly, even while holding multiple meetings on the subject, on the sidelines of the UNGA session. The current system was ‘anachronistic and ineffective’, he declared. “It is also perceived as deeply unfair, denying entire continents and regions a voice in a forum that deliberates their future,” he said. The reference, of course, was to Africa and South America, though not to Australia, which is a continental nation. If nothing else, Australia has not sought a permanent seat on the UNSC.
India was ‘willing to take on more responsibilities’, the minister said in his UNGA address, which was an antidote to his measured ‘offensive’ at Columbia University, earlier. In the same vein, he reiterated New Delhi’s position that India also wanted to ensure that the ‘injustice’ faced by the Global South was addressed. In continuation, Jaishankar said that the inter-governmental negotiations for UNSC reform could not be held hostage forever by ‘nay-sayers’, Jaishankar said.
It is unclear if India would settle for a permanent seat for itself, with or even without ‘veto power’. As New Delhi has found out, the use of bigger powers in the UN scheme for Third World nations, whether democracies or autocracies, begins and ends with a veto-vote. There was a time when India commanded near similar respect without that veto power, especially when it was talking for the Global South, and not about its bilateral problems with Pakistan and/or China.
This continues as Jaishankar’s recent references to China’s backing for Pakistan on ‘sanctioning’ terrorists under the latter’s cover, has received lukewarm response other than from the US and some of its allies. It’s more for strategic reasons than out of their own exposure — hence conviction.
As India’s experience has shown, Third World nations are willing to sign on the dotted line, on the side of P-5 nations on other issues, in the name of their own ‘national pride’. The political consensus in the matter in those nations are mostly uniform. It is here that China and Russia score in the post-Cold War era.
For India, neighbouring Sri Lanka’s conduct since the Cold War era viz India and China stand out. Much as the rest of the world, including large sections of the Indian strategic community, consider that the Chinese ‘debt-trap’ undid all of Sri Lanka’s socio-economic and political gains since Independence in 1948, the domestic opinion is divided at best. Reservations, if any, remain unexpressed.
The deafening Sri Lankan street silence over India-China issues, especially after the former became the ‘lone nation’ to rush food, fuel and medicines, when the rest of the world, including China, looked the other way, when an unexpected economic crisis hit the unsuspecting people, almost overnight. The total indifference of the Sri Lankan people and polity, barring a section of the India-friendly Tamils, was visible more recently over the ‘controversy’ surrounding the Sri Lankan government’s permission for Chinese research/spy ship, Yuan Wang-5 to dock at the southernmost Hambantota Port, again in Beijing’s unfettered possession for 99 years, under bilateral agreements, signed over the past decade.
Such instances have brought out that India cannot ride two horses at the same time. As the ‘knight in a shining armour’ in the cause of democracy. It is a role that the US-led West has arraigned to itself, and has made a qualifying-marker for admittance. This has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War era, over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — and to a lesser extent, over Sri Lanka, whenever under the Rajapaksas.
Ahead of becoming a permanent member of the UNSC, New Delhi should examine how it expected to represent the causes and concerns of long-held friends, who would feel ‘cheated’, if India did not stand by them without question. They have got used to the kind of comfort in the company of China and Russia. Today, even such countries empathise with India’s ‘helplessness’, in the absence of a veto-vote in the UNSC.
Such introspection becomes all the more essential, as India is all set to host two major global events in 2023 — the G20 Summit and also the SCO Summit. These summits have the potential to redefine India’s role in global affairs than already, especially these past years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, one false step, into which events could rush it in, and every gain from the present could be lost.
To the naked eye, yet sharp, it would look as if India is double-paddling on UN reforms. On UNSC matters, Jaishankar’s public utterances were confined mostly to India’s permanent seat on the Security Council. On larger ideas of UN reforms, he spoke for the Global South. This, he did, in his separate addresses at the UNSC and the UNGA.
India further highlighted its South-South support and concerns with Jaishankar hosting a breakfast meeting with members of the informal L-69 grouping, for which UNSC reforms is their main goal. Foreign Ministers of the 42 developing countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific.
Jaishankar tweeted how he was glad to meet so many colleagues and friends of the L-69 grouping. “The title of our meeting, ‘Reinvigorating Multilateralism: A call to Action for Comprehensive Security Council Reform’ aptly captured the message of the gathering. The Global South is working together towards this goal,” he said further.
Yet, a lacuna, in the context of India’s long-term goals and strategies for reviving old links and loyalties based mostly on a colonial past may still be absent. At New York, for instance, Minister Jaishankar held a separate meeting, again customary, with other G-4 nation counterparts, from Brazil, Germany and Japan. All four are aspirants for a permanent seat at the UNSC, and have been coordinating their global efforts in the matter, highlighted by the annual to-do in New York, as happened this year, too.
But questions remain. US President Joe Biden, in his UNGA speech, reiterated America’s past support for India becoming a permanent member of the UNSC. India needs to decide its future course, however distant, about the possibility of support for its case on the UNSC but not necessarily for any or all of the other three, whatever the reason, whatever the way it’s conveyed.
Likewise, New Delhi also has to be clear about its own approach to the Global South, if only to avoid bad-mouthing and consequent loss of faith, from such other quarters in the future. At Columbia University, he said he sensed greater support for India and India was commanding the trust of greater parts of the world. “A lot of countries think we speak for them with a high degree of empathy and accuracy,” the minister said.
Moving away from Global South?
In politico-economic terms, India is moving away from the Global South, slowly but steadily, tilting more towards other groupings, as different as G-20 and G-4, BRICS and the SCO, among many others. It is based on India climbing up the economic scales, now being designated as the fifth largest economy in the world. It should begin devising ways to be of mutual support and assistance, not only in ways it can but also in ways these other nations in the L-69 grouping wants.
Does India still believe that it represents the Global South, and would continue to do so if given a permanent seat on the UNSC? After all, even as India too is talking about their plight, no one is talking about any UNSC representation for the ‘dark continent’, that is Africa. The continent remains the most exploited, then and now, has over a fourth of the UNGA membership on its rolls, the second highest population after Asia but with the lowest per capita GDP – and yet, a lot of unexploited minerals.
But no African country, including South Africa, which is on board with India and Brazil on BRICS, finds a place in New Delhi’s list of aspirants for a permanent seat on the UNSC. With the result, the African Union (AU) continues to be the second largest UN-associated forum, after UNGA. But there is again division, as some AU members are also members of the religion-centric OIC.
Already, India’s position on NAM, another grouping mostly of erstwhile European colonies spread across the world, is lukewarm. Prime Minister Modi, not the one to miss out opportunities to interact with world leaders from across the Global North and South, has skipped all NAM Summits during the past eight years of his prime ministership.
More thought needed
It is thus not only about India becoming a permanent member of the UNSC, now or later, with or without friends and allies. It is even more about whom all it would end up representing, beyond itself, a ‘constituency’ that is mutually beneficial and works both ways. More thought needs to be given to this, and from multiple angles, including the kind of economic assistance and political support that India could render.
On the economic front, it would go beyond the kind of timely assistance that India rushed across the world, starting with the immediate neighbourhood, when Covid stuck, or when floods and droughts affect other nations. On the political front, it could be even more complex. A staunch believe in democracy, India would be called upon to defend ‘autocracies’, or at least those that other self-styled ‘democracies’ proclaim as such.
The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.
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