18 October 2013

by Praful Bidwai

So addicted has India’s power elite become to being treated as the proud representative of a rising great power embarked on an unstoppable march forward that it finds India’s declining global stature and influence in recent months simply incomprehensible.

The signs of decline are unmistakable. The “India Story” is no longer the world’s flavour of the month, “the Next China” metaphor has faded from the Western media, and the seamy side of Indian reality is being highlighted, including the country’s raucous politics, poor social indicators, and the embattled state of a government mired in internal strife and corruption.

Added to this is the impact of Mr Narendra Modi’s aggressive, hate-driven bid for power, the rising threat from communalism, growing exposure of crime-politics links, the notorious December 16 gang-rape case, which all underscore Indian society’s ugly pathologies.

The negative perception is reinforced by the recent slowdown in domestic growth, rising balance-of-payments problems, and the steep fall in the value of the rupee vis-à-vis the United States dollar and other major currencies. With manufacturing growth sluggish or shrinking, India is no longer seen as a fast-industrialising nation. Nor is she the preferred destination of foreign direct investment, virtually on a par with China, as it was considered only a year ago.

The rudest shock, however, comes from India’s embarrassment over its bid to secure one of the 10 non-permanent seats for 2020-21 on the United Nations Security Council from the Asian quota. New Delhi—which has thrown its hat in the ring for a permanent seat on the Council along with Germany, Japan and Brazil through the G-4 grouping—now finds it hard to get support even for a short two-year term without jeopardising its relationship with Vietnam.

Vietnam has just told India, which held a two-year non-permanent seat until last December, that it should stand down. If India does so, Vietnam will support the G-4 and its agenda for Council reform. Or else, India will face a contest when the election is held in 2019.

India had celebrated its victory in the 2010 election for the 2011-12 non-permanent seat as a “big day for Indian diplomacy” (the-then foreign minister SM Krishna) and a “monumental” triumph. In reality, India had won just one more vote in 2010 than tiny Colombia despite a furiously energetic campaign. Mr Krishna personally spoke to 123 foreign ministers, and Indian missions went all out to win votes. India got Kazakhstan to withdraw its candidature.

An India-Vietnam contest would be a setback for their bilateral relations, including strategic-level cooperation, which have improved greatly. The two see a common adversary in China—India, because of its long-term rivalry with China and its Look East policy, and Vietnam because China makes territorial claims on Hanoi and its other Southeastern neighbours. Equally fraught would be the next election, in 2020, in which Afghanistan has bid for a non-permanent seat. Afghanistan has never held a seat on the Council. India, which seeks influence in Afghanistan after the planned US withdrawal in 2014, will be hard put to deny it a seat—the more so since it would be in India’s own interest to get Afghanistan’s nascent democratic institutions as much international legitimisation as possible.

When the annual election for the Asian seat comes up yet again in 2021 (for the 2022-23 term), the United Arab Emirates will be a candidate. Opposing the UAE, a friendly state where millions of Indians work, would violate the convention that the Council should include an Arab state either from the Africa group or the Asia group. India would be loath to be seen violating the convention. Nor will it be easy for India in 2022 to oppose Mongolia, a country it has been cultivating strategically, with China in mind. Mongolia too has never been represented on the Council. In 2023, the likely contender could be Pakistan, which backed India in the 2010 Council election, and which would probably demand reciprocal support from India.

The point is, India will find it impossible to get back into the Council for at least a decade without a contest. India’s experience in fighting Council elections hasn’t been a happy one. When it last contested, in 1996, against Japan, it lost humiliatingly—by 142 to 40 votes.

So much for former Indian UN ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri’s ’s boast: “We are entering the Security Council (as a non-permanent member) after a gap of 19 years...we have no intentions of leaving the Security Council…In other words, before we complete our two-year term we will be a permanent member... This is not going to take as long as people think…”! However, the G-4 didn’t succeed in expanding the Security Council. They face and will continue to meet with opposition from different sources, including the “Coffee Club” comprising Italy, Spain, South Korea, Mexico, Argentina, Pakistan and others. China is especially allergic to Japan’s permanent Council bid and will probably resist India’s till the very end.

So support for a permanent seat for India from the US, France, Britain and Russia will not ensure the absence of a veto by all the Permanent Five members. Nor is the issue likely to come up before the UN for a long time. The G-4’s clout has grown, but they are no match for the Permanent Five.

India’s Security Council bid is driven by a search for (false) prestige, not a transformative universal agenda. While on the Council in 2011-12, India offered no forward-looking perspective, or even resistance to the dominant powers. Although it abstained on Syria, it failed to prevent the obnoxious “responsibility to protect” paragraph enabling attacks on Libya, with disastrous consequences. India by and large tailed the US and other Western powers in the UN and other multilateral forums, and failed to raise major issues such as reform of the International Financial Institutions, solutions to the global economic crisis, iniquities in world trade, and North-South inequalities.

To increase its power, India has joined a number of alliances and regional groupings including BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) in the climate negotiations, IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) for South-South regional cooperation, and BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), not to mention the ASEAN Regional Forum, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and many others. None of these “force multipliers” has performed to expectation. BASIC was set up mainly to ward off pressure for climate actions from the developed countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, but its creation substantially weakened the developing-country Group-of-77, of which India has been a leading member.

At the Durban climate conference (2011), BASIC was caught in a pincer, with both the developed countries and many poor developing countries ganging up against it. It conceded far too much and lost cohesion. Since then, South Africa has broken ranks with BASIC on the issue of the legal form of a new climate agreement to be negotiated by 2015, which will impose obligations on all countries, regardless of their differential responsibilities.

BRICS comprises some of the world’s biggest, fastest-growing economies, with over 40 percent of the globe’s population, 18 percent of its market-exchange GDP (about 27 percent in purchasing-power parity), 15 percent of world trade and two-fifths of global foreign currency reserves. But it has failed to translate its potential into a thoroughgoing reform of the global economy. Take BRICS’ response to the global Great Recession beginning 2008. Instead of challenging neoliberalism at its weakest moment, and demanding a radical change in the global financial system, it allowed the West to dictate (non)-solutions to the crisis, which perpetuate corporate dominance, speculation and inequality, and impose harsh “austerity” measures upon the working people. During the World Bank “voice reform” debate (2010), ostensibly to promote voting-power “parity” between developing and transition countries (DTCs), and developed countries, BRICS went along with cosmetic changes. Although DTCs’ vote-share in the Bank nominally increased from 42.60 to 47.19 percent, the low-income countries’ share only rose from 34.67 to 38.38 percent. The rich still corner over 60 percent of the vote. Post-“reform”, China’s share (3.23 percent) remains smaller than France or Britain’s (4.20), and Brazil’s lower than the Netherlands’. Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Canada have raised their vote-share by 4.1 percentage-points!

Such failures partly explain the growing disenchantment with India among the world’s concerned citizens and its underprivileged people.

India could have, and still can, play a worthy global role if it returns to the unaddressed agendas of fighting for a just and equal economic and political world order, becomes an advocate-campaigner for the world’s poor, subjugated and dispossessed people, promotes peaceful, non-military resolution of disputes, and champions a world free of weapons of mass destruction. But this means giving up the addiction to power projection by military means, abandoning delusions about India’s assured place at the world’s High Table, improving relations with the neighbours as a high priority, and articulating a humane, compassionate global vision. But can our elite, which does just the opposite domestically, invest India’s global power with such universal purpose?