Security Council seat will test India’s mettle
By M K Bhadrakumar
Joy erupted within the establishment in New Delhi late on Tuesday evening as
news arrived from New York regarding India's election to a non-permanent
two-year Asian seat in the United Nations Security Council. A dutiful media
ecstatically tagged along. The infectious excitement was not without good
A 19-year slice of memory was definitively breaking away - dating to the dark
day when India was badly bruised as it contested against Japan and received
hardly one-fourth of the total UN votes. Western powers led by the United
States taught India its first harsh "post-Soviet" lesson for having been
excessively friendly toward the USSR.
Since 1950, India had walked through the portals of the Security Council not
less than six times - on a stunning average of every
seven years - with open support from the Soviet bloc. The humiliating defeat of
1992 hurt badly.
For the next 19 years, New Delhi couldn't muster the will to contemplate
another attempt. It is a sign of the times that India returned to the arena and
got elected on Tuesday with the impressive support of 187 out of 192 countries.
Something has fundamentally changed - in India's self-esteem and, equally, in
the international community's perception of it.
The hard part seems over. But actually, it is just beginning. What sort of
Security Council member is India going to make? The setting is dramatic - a
"post-Cold War" environment of multilateralism dominated by a superpower.
And the United States has let it be known that it expects India to play a
"responsible role" so that it can judge whether Delhi is worthy of its claim to
be inducted as permanent member in an expanded Security Council within the
ambit of the broader UN reform.
However, that is only one quotient. The truth is that none of the five
permanent members - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - genuinely wants
an expansion of the exclusive club, no matter the changed realities of the
contemporary world order. Thoughtful Indians admit that an expansion of the
Security Council and their country's induction as a permanent member is a long
Like the Tramp in the Samuel Beckett play, India needs to wait and Godot may
take time to show up. Through the coming two-year period, meanwhile, India will
be hard-pressed to "hold the terrible silence at bay" - to borrow Beckett's
absurdist words. The American "silence" on India's claim for "permanent
membership" will be the excruciating motif for New Delhi's diplomacy and it can
affect the Indian stance on various issues that come up before the Security
Council under light and shade through the next two-year period.
Stand up and be counted
Some are not-so-tricky issues where India will find itself in total harmony
with the US - Somali pirates, for instance.
Then there are others, where India - although with misgivings - will probably
acquiesce to the US agenda. Reconciliation with the Taliban is one such issue.
The bottom line for New Delhi is that the US should in some form keep its
military presence in Afghanistan in the medium term.
On the other hand, there are issues where the US won't take "no" for an answer
- on Iran, principally - but if India bends, it looks obsequious. Iran could
turn out to be the litmus test of the spunk of Indian diplomacy in New York.
Especially when fearless actors like Brazil and Turkey are watching, and they
are also currently represented as non-permanent members at the Security
The Indian daily Hindu forewarned, "As a rising economic power that is seen as
a strategic partner of the United States in Asia and routinely juxtaposed
against China, India will be critically scrutinized for the stand it takes on
the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sanctions and threats against
Iran, the Darfur crisis in Sudan, and the Palestine question."
Also, four regional groupings that include India are bodily present in the
Security Council at the moment - BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), RIC
(Russia, India and China), IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and BASIC
(Brazil, South Africa, India and China).
A curious dialectic is at work here. While India's best case for a restructured
Security Council is built around the inclusion of rising powers like itself,
Brazil and South Africa - for which these regional groupings serve a purpose -
it is the US that New Delhi visualizes as the ultimate arbiter in the matter,
and America is not a member of any of those groupings.
The inescapable reality is the steady diffusion of power in global politics and
India's US-centric foreign policy can become an impediment to it to performing
optimally in the Security Council. The well-known American scholar and author
Joseph Nye wrote recently, "Much of the work of global governance will rely on
formal and informal networks. Network organizations are used for setting
agendas, building consensus, coordinating policy, exchanging knowledge, and
The Security Council operates in a vastly different environment than when India
was last represented. Russia is preoccupied with its reset with the US, through
which it hopes to shore up its waning global influence. Compared with the
Soviet era, Indians will find the Russians to be business-like and obsessed
with a "convergence of interests."
Again, the Sino-Indian paradigm with its curious formula of cooperation and
competition becomes a tantalizingly variable quotient for India. Equally, the
India-Pakistan relationship remains highly problematic and unpredictable and
the unrest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir can very well intensify
into a regional crisis.
There is virtual foreign policy paralysis in New Delhi on the crucial areas of
China and Pakistan. Agencies of the government, including top bureaucrats,
speak in different voices regarding China's rise and often enough private views
are aired cavalierly via the media as considered policy.
As for Pakistan, India prefers to deal with its neighbor almost exclusively
through the US and whatever residual bilateralism remains becomes a
supplementary track that runs at American bidding. Clarity is lacking in how to
stabilize the bilateral relationship by at least tackling a few "doable"
things. Alas, New Delhi cannot even identify suitable, credible interlocutors -
in a country of over a billion people - who could engage the alienated Kashmiri
people in a purposive conversation.
Turkey and Brazil came to the Security Council to reap their "post-Cold War"
dividend after doing painstaking homework. Turkey normalized relations with
Greece, Syria, Iran and Russia and began reclaiming its Ottoman legacy in the
Middle East. Brazil stepped out of the American canopy and magnificently spread
its wings in places as far away as China and Iran.
Both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva first embarked on a profound restructuring of their
countries' foreign policy by giving it a strongly independent conceptual
underpinning and dynamic orientation and once this task was successfully
accomplished, they thought it fit to strive to play an effective role in the
In comparison, for India what seems to matter is the status of the Security
Council membership. Indian foreign policy perimeters have dramatically shrunk
and are today largely catering to the interests of its elites, who like elites
everywhere are principally self-centered.
A prominent Indian intellectual actually wrote in the Wall Street Journal this
very same eventful week that India's "tryst with destiny" (to borrow India's
first post-independence premier Jawaharlal Nehru's famous words) actually lies
with the "Anglosphere core" - the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand - which have a "belief in democracy and market economics", a
"shared legal tradition" and are "among the most immigrant-friendly places on
the planet." He argued: "India's interests overlap more with this largely
notional grouping than with any other."
Thus, when Iranians or Palestinians speak passionately about justice, equity
and fair play, it resonates with extraordinary vibrancy in Ankara and Brasilia,
but falls to earth with a dull tropical thud in New Delhi.
Evidently, it is not only that the world changed when India was absent from the
Security Council - India too changed.
All that Foreign Minister S M Krishna would say was that India was prepared to
"establish its credentials and credibility in handling issues which come up in
the Security Council with a degree of responsibility.” But that is a very low
benchmark to set for an emerging power that the world is already inclined to
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.