In 1996, India contested for a seat on the UN Security Council and lost to Japan by a big margin. The solidarity among developing countries came up short against what Indian officials called Japan’s “dollar diplomacy", as Poorvi Chitalkar and David M. Malone note in The Oxford Handbook Of Indian Foreign Policy. More than two decades later, India has won a re-election of its candidate Dalveer Bhandari at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Britain. India’s appeal among developing and underdeveloped countries did indeed help. But so did India’s increased economic heft.

New Delhi’s desire to play a larger role in global governance is not a new phenomenon. This desire has come coupled with a clear preference for multilateralism. The approach in Jawaharlal Nehru’s years was characterized by high idealism. Global objectives like decolonization and disarmament were deemed important. But what India clearly lacked was material resources. Moral grandstanding, which New Delhi resorted to, proved to be an inadequate substitute. After Nehru’s demise, India began to look inwards. But the tendency to indulge in global activism did surface from time to time.

India’s enthusiasm for multilateral global governance did not bear fruit in terms of forwarding its own national interests. The best example comes from the UN. Nehru viewed it as the key to global peace and development. When some countries raised objections to inequitable distribution of power within the UN Security Council, Nehru thwarted them by raising the fear that rocking the boat would lead to the collapse of the UN. Unpersuaded by the realist logic that a stronger country should not involve a third party in a dispute with a weaker country, Nehru referred the Kashmir problem to the UN. To his great shock, the UN did not back India’s sovereignty claims over Kashmir.

India faced similar setbacks in other multilateral fora. Despite all its claims of speaking on the behalf of developing countries, India failed to get its crucial demands met in the negotiations for the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips). Moreover, India also earned the ire of developed nations for its—in Stephen Cohen’s words—“unrealistic combination of arrogance and poverty". India’s approach to nuclear disarmament was even more puzzling. Rajiv Gandhi’s disarmament campaign was as foolish in its negligence of geopolitical realities as it was bold in its ambition. It seemed as if disarmament advocacy deluded India into a belief that its own security challenges would be taken care of. Unsurprisingly, the end results—Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—were deeply disappointing.

India’s record of engagement with the Bretton Woods institutions—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—has been better. But even here, its demands for voice and vote reforms to give greater say to emerging economies have fallen on deaf ears. The climate change negotiations started with a bounty for developing countries: the Kyoto Protocol in the mid-1990s recognized that the developed countries would bear the maximum burden of climate change mitigation. But by 2015 in Paris, that consensus was clearly overturned. However, by now, India had realized that it could not merely continue with persistent complaints.

New Delhi is now gradually shifting its approach to global governance and multilateralism. The primary objective of this new approach is to help shape the global rules and external realities in favour of India’s economic growth and strategic interests. For this purpose, India is simultaneously moving on three parallel tracks. First, New Delhi demands that the representation in global governance institutions should reflect the realities of today, not of 1945. It now campaigns aggressively for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. The victory in the ICJ against a permanent member will bolster India’s claim to the seat. Along with greater votes in Bretton Woods institutions, India also seeks membership in global export control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Second, India has been willing to partner with other countries, including China, to shape new institutions that are challenging the frozen post World War II order. India’s membership in Brics (the multilateral grouping comprising of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) was a reflection of frustration with lack of movement of reforms in the old institutions. It has played a key role in the formations of both Brics’ New Development Bank and the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank where it is the second largest shareholder. India’s recent entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can be interpreted in a similar vein.

Third, India’s membership in these new institutions does not mean that it is, like China, aiming to mount a fundament challenge to the political West. This is clear from India staying out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that has clear geopolitical ambitions. India is open to strengthening the liberal, democratic order in concert with the Western powers. Its recent partnership with Japan for building the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor is a case in point.

At the same time, India is increasingly unwilling to tolerate the old boys club with its closed membership. The conquest of the crumbling fortress of a declining power in the ICJ shows that New Delhi is ready to push the door open if mere knocking does not suffice.

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