At the Indian Parliament, US President Barack Obama said what Indians yearn to hear: that India should be a permanent member of the expanded United Nations (UN) Security Council. His exact words were cautious: “The just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate. That is why I can say today—in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."

There are many caveats in the endorsement, but by saying the US won’t stand in India’s way as it makes its way to the main table, he cheered Indians and upset Pakistanis (which is often the same thing).

But India is not alone in harbouring those dreams. Japan—also endorsed by the US—is one aspirant, as are Germany, Brazil and South Africa. The larger the Security Council becomes, the harder it would be to arrive at any consensus, and the less “effective" or “efficient" it will be, even though it will appear to be more “credible" and “legitimate". There is tension within the objectives and conditions Obama has mentioned—but that is a detail the world will haggle over “in the years ahead".

That’s not India’s immediate concern; at the moment, it wants to be at the main table, even though India hasn’t articulated clearly what substantive issues it would raise at the Security Council that aren’t being raised now, or what it will say. With Non-Alignment dead (OK, dormant) and India already part of the Group of Twenty (G-20), the country has come a long way from the early 1990s, when it tried to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, and its moves were rebuffed. I recall a painful moment at a press conference in Singapore, where the pouting prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, said he won’t make any more appeals to join Apec, because the door was shut. Singapore’s then prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, tried to make light of the moment, by quipping: “It is shut, but it is not locked."

In the same vein, while there’s growing appreciation of the legitimacy of India’s claim to be at the UN’s head table, others view it differently: think China.

The reasons Indians cite for being at that table sound like justifications based on describing India, and not with intrinsic logic. India is a large democracy, but now so is Brazil; it is multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but so is Indonesia; and if Indians have sent peacekeepers for the UN for years, so has Canada, and now, increasingly, Bangladesh.

To be sure, Indian contribution to the UN has been great, and the virtues India cites are important. The composition of the Security Council is indeed flawed, but the permanent membership of it is not a gift Obama can offer. Veto-wielding powers—notably China —will have to agree; the General Assembly would have to endorse. Expect China to seek a pound of flesh: renegotiated borders, reduced support for the Dalai Lama, greater access to Chinese investments in India. At the General Assembly, expect Pakistan to try its best, despite its rapidly dwindling credibility internationally, to spoil India’s party.

There is a more serious question: What does India want to do at the Security Council? Does India have a clearly articulated view on world affairs that goes beyond the rhetoric, beyond its immediate neighbourhood, and is driven by principles? That idea of principles is important: Among the reasons Obama said he saw India as America’s natural partner was the shared commitment to democracy and human rights. Internationally, India has been an uneven supporter of democracy and human rights. In the Nehruvian era, India gave its views on many issues, as though it was a permanent member of the Security Council. In 1956, India rightly condemned the Anglo-French Suez adventure, backing Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, but stayed silent when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution. India somehow missed the Prague Spring, though it was a vocal critic of the Vietnam war. India was on the right side of history in condemning the apartheid regime and Pol Pot’s murderous rule in Cambodia.

But what about Myanmar? Obama is not alone in expecting India to do more on Myanmar. After all, India has a proud past to draw on: Once India allowed a dissident radio station to operate out of India, and in 1993, India honoured Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nehru Award for International Understanding. But since then, India has forgotten that idealism; it has been remarkably coy in criticizing Myanmar’s junta, even allowing Than Shwe to pollute the Raj Ghat with his presence. With the Karen refugee crisis worsening, a sham election over, and severe restrictions continuing on Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League of Democracy, here’s a moment for India to act like the responsible, value-based global power it aspires to be.

Your move, South Block.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at

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