India at UNSC is not a superpower moment

India at UNSC: A diplomatic breakthrough, not a superpower moment

A cold shoulder to the UN, not a warm embrace, may be needed

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI File Photo

India chairing the central sanctorum of global geopolitical power for the first time since 2012 at the United Nations Security Council is an imperative diplomatic step forward.

It allows New Delhi to voice her core concerns in the global security commons like no other pulpit. India has begun well, with the first discussion on maritime security and the freedom of navigation on the open oceans – a topic that has the backing of other maritime democracies and evidently made the People’s Republic of China very uncomfortable. At the meeting, displayed its irritation by blaming a “few countries” for“pursuing an exclusive regional strategy in the Asia Pacific region in an attempt to create intensified maritime conflict.”

Goal achieved.

Many such corners will present themselves, and that in itself enhances India’s global footprint and bring on the agenda crossborder terror and the need for greater market access for poor countries among other topics of direct concern to India on the agenda of the world. So far, so good.

The problem is the gloating back home - for unlike what the hyperventilating television media and the Twitterati may have you believe - this is no superpower moment. This opportunity does not suddenly make India a leader of the world. The elephant in the room is not India – it’s the v with a capital – the Veto.

The fact is that the Security Council is an institution way past its use-by date. Without a veto, it is a glorified talk shop for the non-permanent members who come and vent their views, albeit with some diplomatic leeway. That India, a nation representing one-sixth of humanity, with a $3 trillion GDP and thermonuclear weapons, is not a permanent member puts a question mark on the relevance of this body. This is especially true when the Security Council has the United Kingdom as a veto country. It surprises many on that glorious island to discover this fact. Post the Second World War and particularly post the Suez crisis, the United Kingdom clearly punches so far above its weight in the highest decision-making body in the world. It single-handedly makes the permanent members look a little bit ridiculous. As always, wisdom comes to mind about Britain from the classic series Yes Minister, where Jim hacker famously said, “We don’t have any real power. We are just an American nuclear missile base.”

Put differently, the Indian presidency at the Security Council actually shines the light on a past that is unwilling to give way to a present that is already upon it.

India must not waste this opportunity to underscore her substance. Afghanistan presents a golden opportunity. Diplomatically, India has been cut out of the deal-making even by her natural international partner, Russia. By calling a last-minute Afghan situation discussion, India scored a point – and underscored the increasing irrelevance of the Security Council where deals are being cut in trilateral fora and not the august assembly. It is this kind of tactical positioning that will make this stint on the high table worth it for India.

Also read: India shows it’s got moves at UNSC helm

In the long run, India has some tough choices to make. It has been lobbying the world at great expense in time and money with its foreign missions trying to win the backing of countries like Mauritius to sundry African nations and the islands off Pacific atoll earnestly backing India’s cause.

India lost a golden opportunity in the 1950s when America was amiable to her membership, but she perused the cause of China. Even now, as US secretary for state Bliken said, on a recent visit, the US favours an expansion of the Security Council – but without a veto. Russia has already endorsed this arrangement. It is this that India should peruse but with a caveat – that the veto is a must.

The time has come to articulate that India does not have endless patience. Indeed time is running out for India – Japan, a close friend, and Indonesia, a potential partner, are fast on its heels with their diplomats who have been even busier than India and spending far more money to argue their case for permanent membership.

In the coming years, India may well have to consider a radical shift in her approach. A cold shoulder to the United Nations, not a warm embrace may be needed. For a country whose strategic culture is embedded in the very idea of the equally vague notion of the international community - this will be a hard sell. Perhaps it will be an impossible call as the UN nurtures a mafia in India’s élite, offering tax-free dollar jobs to Indian bureaucrats and their children at the one end of the spectrum and to soldiers on much-coveted international peacekeeping mission at the other. India needs to realize that power by its very nature is not bestowed – it has to be seized. A good beginning has been made by seizing the moment – but to make India as a permanent member of the UN security council with a veto a reality will take a revolutionary new disruptive diplomatic outlook.

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.