Dalveer Bhandari's ICJ election part of a subtle power game between ascendant India and diminishing Britain

Short of a political tsunami, a failure of State or a devastating natural calamity, change in the international system tends to be incremental.

Dalveer Bhandari’s victory over Christopher Greenwood at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is exactly the sort of gradual change which occurs when established and rising powers jostle.

 Dalveer Bhandaris ICJ election part of a subtle power game between ascendant India and diminishing Britain

File image of Dalveer Bhandari. Image courtesy: News18

India's prickly nationalists should refrain from thumping their chests too much. Observers saw this coming.

Consider the facts: The election went eleven inconclusive rounds.

In each round, Bhandari won a majority in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), whereas Greenwood prevailed in the Security Council.

A candidate must win both chambers. So with neither side willing to blink, the contest remained a stalemate.

In the end, Britain bowed to the sentiment of the UNGA.

Helped along by past precedent, where candidates with majorities in the Security Council, but unable to muster the numbers in the General Assembly, had stepped down, Britain withdrew Greenwood.

But creating the right for a vote requires deft diplomacy.

The Ministry of External Affairs must be saluted for showing good judgement and steady resolve in securing a successful outcome.

As any practitioner knows, diplomatic walkways are slippery and filled with mirages. Ambiguous messaging softens blows from brutal power plays, and the world is not as it appears.

India read the signals, and was not hustled into hasty action.

In the end, it wasn't so much a dogfight between the Security Council and General Assembly as a traditional power play.

Factors that tilted the contest in India’s favour

The election was yet another round in the historic fight between the General Assembly and Security Council, where the General Assembly has seldom prevailed.

This time, resentment at the privileges of the entrenched P5 nations (the US, UK, France, China and Russia) spilled over.

Britain was trapped in the crossfire. There was no bailout via a veto.

Christopher Greenwood had a mark against him. In 2003, he provided dubious legal counsel to Tony Blair, arguing in favour of the Iraq war.

A distinguished diplomat whom I shall not name said of that war: The moral argument was illegal and the legal argument was immoral.

With the ongoing mayhem in West Asia, delegates might well have calculated that Greenwood, if elected, might have taken them down a slippery path.

Representational image. Image courtesy: icj-cij.org

Representational image. Image courtesy: icj-cij.org

Britain is in decline

In the Indian imagination, Britain isn't merely a former colonial power whose shadow lurks in every alley, with telltale marks of a culture which shaped much of modern India.

Britain is in decline and Indians know it.

Consider this: On the same day that Greenwood was defeated, London lost the right to host the European Medicines Agency to Amsterdam, and the European Banking Authority to Paris. The Indians got the calculation right. But Britain deserves credit for stepping back from the brink.

In backing down, Britain took the pragmatic, if painful, step of adjusting to a changing world, and a new India.

This should not come as a surprise.

India rising

India is ascendant towards the international high table.

The resilience of its democracy, the healthy rate of its economic growth, and its soft power attributes make India an attractive model for state engineering.

This translates into appropriate diplomatic signalling.

Between 2010 and 2015, then prime minister David Cameron made three trips to India.

But, until November 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in no hurry to reciprocate.

In fact, that visit by Modi was the first trip to Britain by an Indian prime minister in a decade.

Cameron, in his fervent wooing of India, made peace with the past: The Empire was gone, but trade remained the prize.

Some estimate that by 2030, India will have the world's largest middle class (and with it, a huge market).

At the turn of the century, during my tour of duty in London, British colleagues from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came over for lunch at the Indian High Commission.

The banter that followed recognised India's aspirations and signalled a willingness to consider adjusting to change.

Our friends tucked into authentic kebabs and fiery curries, just as they are in India.

They knew full well that chicken tikka masala was a British food that no one in India would consider authentically Indian.

Our hard-nosed colleagues saw India as it was, not the way the British imagined it.

India has moved on. So has Britain, which is still a member of the Security Council, with the great power of the veto.

But this latest setback shows the ever shifting sands of diplomacy at the UN.

Britain’s veto remains protected, but its global influence is gradually diminishing.

In June, a Mauritius-backed resolution referring Britain’s hold over the disputed Chagos Islands to the ICJ was passed by the General Assembly, despite Britain's protests.

Brexit and immigration control has proven a torrid mix: Britain is no longer the confident, outward-looking power it once was. Its inward orientation has marked it as a diminishing power on the global stage.

In stark contrast, India, the nation which contributed 25 percent of the world’s GDP through most of human history, is on the rise.

In his book India: A Million Mutinies Now, VS Naipaul called this the restoration of India.

Today, we refer to India as the world's largest democracy, but it was exactly that in 1947, when we gained our Independence.

However, this description is more fitting today, when India is a major economy.

In standing down, Britain calculated that post-Brexit, India was a partner of choice.

So rather than settling scores, we'd be better off celebrating this important friendship.

Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador to Portugal and Laos. 

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2017 10:57:22 IST