The yawning gap between India’s ambitions and its capacity to achieve them—so excruciatingly apparent in the realm of domestic governance—have also manifested themselves in the international arena, particularly its oft-proclaimed desire for permanent membership of the coveted United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and to play a more prominent role in global affairs.
These limits are quite visible at the ongoing annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) gathering in New York and are manifesting themselves in two ways. First, at the level of political capital that India is investing in the proceedings and, second, on the issues that it has not raised at the annual jamboree.
On the former, for instance, at the ministerial meeting of the G4 countries (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) to reform the UNSC, India was not represented by a political figure, let alone the foreign minister, as was the case with the other three members of the group. This was despite the stated intention of the meeting to “insert greater political momentum and work together to give an impetus to the reform process”.
Unless India’s objective is to downgrade the G4 process (which is not entirely unreasonable given the diminishing prospects of some of the other members being admitted into the UNSC), it is difficult to understand the absence of political representation at the meeting.
Similarly, the inexplicable decision of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to skip the UN talkfest altogether (presumably on account of the local political crisis), despite India’s presence on the UNSC and as the head of the Council’s Committee on Counter Terrorism, also raised questions about the commitment of its leadership to India’s quest for permanent membership. While the formal sessions of the UNGA sessions tend to be turgid affairs (despite some histrionic), they provide a crucial setting for numerous side meetings where deals are struck and support is garnered. Clearly, the prospects for such agreements being reached are directly proportional to the rank of the political leaders present.
Singh’s absence was telling given the formidable presence of both the Brazilian and South African heads of state, who along with India are aspirants for permanent membership of the UNSC. The fact that both presidents Dilma Rousseff and Jacob Zuma made the effort to be there despite their own domestic political challenges lends gravitas to their UNSC efforts. In terms of issues, every country has the propensity to flag their pet projects, which are often defined in terms of their narrow national interests and are often determined by a looming election campaign or domestic politics. However, it is equally important to raise issues that are of broader global interest and might resonate with the interests of other UN members.
In the case of India, terrorism, piracy, a greater role in deciding the mandates of UN peacekeeping operations and, of course, reform of the UNSC are justifiably crucial issues to raise. Some of these—particularly terrorism and piracy—also resonate with key countries in the East and the West and provide useful leverage to build political support for other issues of interest to India.
However, India will do well to raise the issue of Afghanistan, Iran and Syria for two reasons. First, these are issues that are high on the agenda of the UNSC and likely to remain so in the coming years. Second, by contributing to their resolution India will not only strengthen support for its other issues but also its case for permanent membership of the UNSC.
None of this will be possible without the unflinching support from the highest level of the Indian leadership. While this might be a mission impossible for the timorous prime minister, India’s presidency of the UNSC in November provides, perhaps, the last opportunity to make its case before it leaves the Council.
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