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UNSC: let India’s track record speak for itself

April 26, 2005

The visit of UN secretary- general Kofi Annan to Delhi has generated predictable interest in the nature of the relationship that India currently has with this apex global body and the status that it seeks. This is so, even as the UN is attempting a review of its structural framework based on the inputs provided by a high-level panel that has since submitted its report.

The more visible aspect of the latter is the revamp of the UN Security Council. The proposals include two options — one that envisages an increase in the number of permanent members with the veto power, and another that seeks to freeze the veto power to the existing five members and increase the non-veto members in the UNSC.

India has already staked its claim to be a part of the revamped UNSC along with Germany, Japan and Brazil, but on current evidence this re-vamp of the UNSC is going to be bitterly contested.

Some basic realities of the UN merit recall in the run up to its 60th anniversary celebrations later in 2005. For a global community that subscribed to normative democratic values in the aftermath of colonialism and which in turn became the bedrock for the East-West divide of the Cold War, the UN since its inception in 1945 is among the least democratic bodies in the world.

The UNSC with its five permanent members, who are also the five nations that have been classified as Nuclear Weapon States (NWS)— namely, the US, Russia the UK, France and China—are the core management team that take all the relevant security and strategic decisions at the UN. Yes, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) includes all member-states and they are all equal, irrespective of size and other indicators, but at best they can make recommendations that have to be approved by the UNSC.

India has had to live with this reality for 60 years and in these decades, the UN has many positive achievements to its credit. Much of this has been enabled by the manner in which the global community has sought to empower the UN that is not a supra government but a reflection of the collective will of individual nations.

In 2005, the global centre of gravity is slowly returning to Asia, where it existed in the 19th century, before the tenets of political economy specific to colonialism shifted this core to Europe and then the US. To that extent, the invalidity of the UNSC, as it exists today, is an existential reality.

However, if the recent turbulence in China over Japan’s candidature to the UNSC is any indication, it is evident that there will be no quick consensus about how the UNSC is to be revamped. Much the same could be applied to the German and Brazilian claims and the nations that are bitterly opposed to them. And even for India, the Pakistani position that is vehemently opposed to Delhi’s possible admission is well-known.

During the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Delhi, it was noted that Beijing supports India’s claim to the UNSC and the exact choice of word and phrase was minutely examined. While this statement was received with enthusiasm in India, the more nuanced Chinese position is becoming more evident wherein Beijing has aligned itself with those nations who are against any swift decision regarding UNSC expansion. Reports from Islamabad suggest that according to the Pakistani leadership, Beijing has assured them that there is no emphatic support for India’s case to join the UNSC.

A recall of this tedious litany is to highlight the central point that any meaningful expansion of the UNSC, that would be in consonance with India’s legitimate aspirations, is not on the cards anytime soon. Thus, it may be more prudent for India to make the point that its candidature is self-evident, but it should not invest too much capital —political or diplomatic — in making this a litmus test for its many bilateral and multilateral relations.

There are some existential realities that make the case for India. These include the US National Intelligence Council estimate that by 2020, barely 15 years from now, India’s GDP will be on the threshold of overtaking European economies and will be next only to the US, China and Japan. Three of these nations are Asian and the relevance of the continent and these three states cannot be ignored.

Militarily, India has a credible profile that is being incrementally nurtured, and as far as the UN is concerned, the Indian contribution is distinctive. The Indian military has participated with great credit in 41 of the 59 UN peacekeeping missions over the last 60 years. And it is estimated that in the years ahead, the Indian contribution will increase.

Thus, the preferred option would be for India to stake its claim but in a detached and dignified manner. It would be more prudent for Delhi to make itself more relevant to the management of regional and global security and stability, as it did during the December 2004 tsunami tragedy, and let this track-record speak for itself. There is an old saying in rural India that if you make yourself relevant and indispensable, the village panchayat will have no option but to invite you, more so when they see your well-fed buffaloes and the polished lathi! Some consistent extrapolation from this indigenous wisdom may not be misplaced.