Is India ready for prime time?

Is India ready for prime time?

Eleven months ago this column argued that India’s current two-year tenure at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would be judged on two criteria: first, whether it can contribute to restoring the council’s effectiveness, and second, whether it can play the great power politics in the world’s most exclusive club to strengthen its national strategic interests (“The security council challenge", Mint, 18 October). How has India fared? Not as well as had been expected.

In a recent lecture, national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon best articulated India’s stated position on its role as a world power. He argued: “India would only be a responsible power if our choices better the lot of our people" and admitted that “India’s success in transforming herself would…require us to work with external partners". At the same time, India’s “tactical caution and strategic initiative, sometimes simultaneously" reflect not only a deep ambivalence, but also the inability to take action that would be to India’s advantage.

For instance, dealing with piracy that threatens India’s seaborne trade in partnership with countries of the Horn of Africa and other international and regional actors would be a logical approach to protect India’s interest. Yet, despite its “five-step" anti-piracy action plan articulated in the UNSC resolution 1976, India has failed to build an effective partnership to deal with this scourge. This was evident when Indian and Pakistani naval ships brushed against each other even when both were ostensibly supporting the same anti-piracy operation.

This was also the case with the Indian-led open debate on peacekeeping last fortnight. Despite India’s impressive UN peacekeeping credentials the debate barely caused a ripple. This was not entirely unexpected: somnolent August, coupled with the impending arrival of hurricane Irene, was not the perfect time for yet another peacekeeping debate in UNSC. It led even my blue-helmet aficionado colleague, Richard Gowan, to wonder if this was “the most boring peacekeeping debate ever?"

India’s background paper for the debate highlighted the huge “resource gap" for UN peacekeeping missions. It pointed out that the annual budget for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan of $50 billion was more than the total UN peacekeeping budget over the last two decades. While lack of resources certainly contribute to a “performance deficit", improved resources alone cannot produce better results; if that were true then Isaf would be the most successful mission, but that is, clearly, not the case. Besides, Isaf troops are carrying out duties that most troops under the UN flag, including Indian ones, would be unwilling to perform.

The debate shied away from addressing other critical issues that have adversely affected the performance of peacekeeping operations, such as the different interpretations of the mandate and the quality of mission leadership and troops. Similarly, the issue of the leadership of the UN department of peacekeeping operations, which has always been under the helm of a French individual (even though France provides fewer UN troops than India and is only the fifth largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget), was not even broached. This was in sharp contrast to the challenge India and others raised for the French leadership of the International Monetary Fund.

“Power", as Menon ruminated in his lecture, “is the ability to create and sustain outcomes"; India has been unable to effect outcomes, particularly in UNSC ever since its establishment. As Menon candidly admitted in reference to the Kashmir issue, “we had underestimated the protean forms of power politics". Sadly the same situation prevails even today. Unless India plays great power politics deftly to advance its own strategic interest, while ensuring greater effectiveness of UNSC, it will disappoint not only those who are its most ardent supporters, but also its own stated objectives.

W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight

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