Misplaced euphoria over UN seat

28 October 2010

India 's policy-makers are beguiled by deceptive symbols of “prestige” like the Commonwealth Games, G-20 membership and nuclear arsenals. Is this really what India should do with its growing power?

An official press conference in Delhi at 9:30 pm? Nothing else can explain this except Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s euphoria over India’s election as one of five temporary members of the United Nations Security Council. Krishna called this a “big day for Indian diplomacy” and compared it with what tennis-player “Somdev Devvarman has done in the Commonwealth Games”. It is hard to understand how this was a monumental victory when there was no electoral contest for the Asia quota (to which India belongs) after Kazakhstan was persuaded to withdraw.

India got the highest number of votes of the five winners: 187 out of 192. But this is partly explained by India’s herculean effort. During the General Assembly session in New York last month, 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 yet more official calls. It’s sobering to know that even Colombia polled only one vote less than India—despite its puny size and diplomatic resources. South Africa polled 182. Another reason is that Pakistan, which wants to contest the Asian seat in 2012—for which India’s support would be useful—didn’t campaign against, and apparently voted for, India.

India will be only one of several rising powers to sit next January around the Council’s famous horseshoe table—with South Africa, Germany, Brazil and Nigeria. India, Germany and Brazil belong to the Group of 4 which has lobbied for years for permanent seats on the Council. The fourth, Japan, ends its term this year. The G-4 are in an altogether different league from the five permanent members (US, Russia, France, Britain and China), each of which enjoys veto power and can block the Council’s expansion.

Krishna underscored the significance of India’s victory thus: “For the first time, the Security Council will witness the simultaneous presence of all BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) countries, and three of the four G-4 countries (India, Brazil and Germany) ….”

Does this enhance India’s chances of getting a permanent seat? The honest answer is, not quite, not necessarily. BRIC is a loose grouping invented by a Goldman Sachs report on the likely future size of these economies. Its members have little in common and can even be rivals—e.g. China and India. IBSA is more structured. But then, South Africa isn’t in the G-4. And IBSA is an emerging-country grouping over which Germany doesn’t exactly exult.

Ultimately, what matters is what the P-5 do about expanding the Council and the number of permanent seats—with or without veto power. Krishna himself admits that the P-5 are “not as enthusiastic as developing nations” about expansion. Expansion would be “an uphill task” unless the P-5 “play ball with us”: “We are hopeful that we will be able to carry a large number of countries with us, but we have not been able to drive the same kind of conviction” with the P-5. But this could have been, and was, said in 20004-5, when Council reform was put on the agenda.

Krishna’s excitement about the Council election is probably better understood in retrospective context. India is entering the Council after 19 years. In 1996, when it moved heaven and earth to win the Asia seat against Japan, the result was a disastrous 142:40-vote defeat. Even the then Opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted: “The margin was devastating.” But today’s India is very different from what it was then. As the West suffers relative decline, the emerging economies’ importance is rising. India is recognised in aggregate terms as a major economic player and a great regional power. Why, it even had its nuclear weapons legitimised through the Indo-US nuclear deal despite having signed no nuclear restraint or disarmament treaty.

However, there is another dimension to India’s global image: persistent mass poverty, deprivation and malnutrition. India is the hunger capital of the world, which ranks 67 among 84 countries in the just-published Global Hunger Index—lower than Nepal, Pakistan, even famine-afflicted, “failed state” Sudan. India’s institutions perform poorly and often produce disasters like the communally biased Allahabad High Court judgment on the Babri mosque, which recognises a deity (Ram Lalla) as a juristic person. India is widely seen as having failed to contain insurgencies and mass discontent in Kashmir, the Northeast and the central tribal belt by democratic means. India’s justice delivery and law enforcement systems are ineffective. And mafias rule its mining, forests and a host of industries and services.

India must address these domestic agendas if it is to be seen as a successful democracy and a great nation that cares for its people. Regrettably, our narcissistic policy-makers are beguiled by high but iniquitous GDP growth and by deceptive symbols of “prestige” like the Commonwealth Games, G-20 membership and nuclear arsenals. The Security Council seat is of a piece with this. But we must seriously ask what we should do with our growing power to make India and the world better places.