‘The Guardian’, October 21, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

When India got elected last week to the United Nations Security Council as one of its five temporary members for two years, Foreign Minister SM Krishna was ecstatic. He termed this a “big day for Indian diplomacy” and a “reflection of the expectations that the world has from us”. The media joined the chorus to celebrate this “monumental” victory, which will give India a chance to “showcase its eligibility to become a permanent member” of the Council. New Delhi has long nurtured this ambition and backed it indefatigably, while throwing its lot with the other G-4 aspirants (Japan, Germany, Brazil).

But it’s ludicrous to exult over an election for which there was no contest! Under the Asian rota system, India’s victory became inevitable once Kazakhstan was persuaded to withdraw from the race. Indian policy-makers and -shapers do have a point when they underscore that of the five new members (including Colombia, South Africa, Germany and Portugal), India polled the most votes: 187 out of a possible 192. But even Colombia polled only one vote less—despite its puny size and minuscule lobbying effort. South Africa didn’t do too badly either, with 182 votes.

India lobbied furiously for the seat. During the General Assembly session in New York, Krishna personally spoke to the foreign ministers of 123 countries, said to be “the most intense lobbing effort by an Indian minister in such a short span”. This was followed by calls from Indian missions the world over. It also helped that Pakistan didn’t campaign against, and almost certainly voted for, India. It reportedly wants the Asia-quota seat in 2012 and didn’t want to antagonise India.

India’s recent election stands in sharp contrast to 1996, when it last contested the Asian seat against Japan. The result then was a humiliating 142:40 defeat. Of course, there has since been a sea-change in India’s global status, with its rising profile as a potential economic superpower, and a great regional power, whom nobody wants to displease. India has even extracted a unique deal from the United States under which its nuclear weapons are legitimised and the world resumes regular nuclear commerce with it—although India has signed no atomic restraint/disarmament treaty.

Does the temporary membership bring India any closer to a permanent seat on the Council, with or without a veto? Does the “simultaneous presence” in the Council of all BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) countries, and three of the G-4 (India, Brazil and Germany) help strengthen India’s case, as Krishna contends?

The answer is, probably not. The G-4 association carries its own burden: China is as keen to keep Japan out of the Council’s permanent membership as Washington is to bring it in. Germany’s bid raises more eyebrows than India’s. And the “Coffee Club” comprising Italy, Spain, Mexico, Pakistan and others stiffly opposes the G-4. IBSA, an emerging-country grouping, evokes a North-South divide. And BRIC is just a banker-invented name. The G-4’s bid remains vulnerable to the veto of each of the Permanent Five, just as it was in 2004-05 when the Council’s expansion was debated.

It would be wiser to India to redirect its energies radically. India should stop obsessing with a permanent seat and instead work to strengthen the General Assembly and make it more vibrant and more responsive to the weakest states. What matters much more than position, status or symbols of status is how India uses its rising power. Here, India remains unsure, timid and confused. In place of crafting pro-active independent positions on major issues like Iran, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, climate change, North-South relations, and the Great Recession, India tails the West—a complete U-turn from the days of Non-Alignment. So preoccupied is India with nurturing its new “strategic partnership” with the US that it has failed to leverage its own special advantage in respect, for instance, of Iran, with which it has enjoyed good relations.

India not only put in abeyance a lucrative gas pipeline project from Iran via Pakistan, but voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency “under coercion” from Washington—despite its stand that Iran is not in substantive breach of its IAEA and non-proliferation obligations. India should play a mediatory role that prevents Iran from being cornered and allows it to pursue legitimate nuclear activities with IAEA inspections.

India had a principled position for Palestinian nationhood for decades. It recently abandoned it to embrace Israel as an ally and major military supplier. But India hasn’t used its relations with Israel to encourage less reckless behaviour on its part, or help the Palestinians. India pledged to uphold the G-77 developing countries’ stand on differentiated North-South responsibility for climate change and for an ambitious, legally-binding agreement with deep enforceable emissions cuts by industrialised countries. But India struck a collusive, ineffectual, obligations-free deal at Copenhagen with the US and the biggest emerging polluters, which spells disaster for the planet.

These positions are rooted in the domestic elite’s pro-Western biases and cry out for correction. India’s elite greatly relishes its growing global power. But it doesn’t debate its purposes. It does not ask what kind of power India should be and how it can use its influence to make the world better while promoting India’s enlightened interests as a tribune of the global underprivileged. That’s a tragedy for a nation with the Gandhi-Nehru legacy