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Why the 'high table' of power remains out of India's reach

Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, easily the most engaging raconteur among our politicians, famously observed that gaining admittance into the club of Big Powers epitomized by the Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council, which India has vainly been attempting to do, was a bit like jostling in a crowd to get into an unreserved railway compartment.

You do whatever it takes to get in, even finding solidarity with others on the outside, while those inside the compartment are doing their utmost to keep you out. But once you’ve somehow squeezed your way in, you become one of the privileged few and your best interests are in ensuring that no one else – including your erstwhile comrades-in-arms - gets in.


Finding common cause has proved extremely difficult, and the larger the grouping the greater the level of difficulty.Reuters

Every few years, Indian diplomats and foreign policy mandarins manage to work themselves into a state of excitement about some glacial progress in their efforts to get India into that train compartment of the UN Security Council permanent membership. In that endeavor, India has played every trick in the game of building solidarity with others in the same position – Brazil, Germany and Japan (which together make up the G4) – and with the larger grouping of developing nations, under the constellation of the so-called L69 group.

Finding common cause has proved extremely difficult, and the larger the grouping the greater the level of difficulty. And even after some semblance of unity emerged, it was difficult to get other similar regional groups – such as the African Group and the Caribbean Community (Caricom), the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and so on – onto the same page.

And that’s not even counting the resistance from some of the five Permanent Members – the US, UK, Russia, France and China. As WikiLeaks documents have revealed, China was in 2009 actively persuading US diplomats not to be “proactive” in promoting the expansion of the Security Council. “The P-5 ‘club’ should not be diluted,” an unnamed Chinese official told a US diplomat in Beijing. “If we end up with a P-10,” he added, both China and the US “would be in trouble.” (More on that here.)

And then, of course, there are the compulsive spoilers: a motley grouping called the Uniting for Consensus (or Coffee Club) - of which Pakistan is a key constituent - whose only purpose appears to be to stir the pot and ensure that no meaningful progress was made in reforming the UN Security Council.

Considering the complexity of the whole process of expanding the Security Council, the impossible arithmetic that is weighted against countries like India, and the sheer resistance from entrenched interests, it seems passing strange that Indian diplomats get their hopes up from time to time, in expectation of forward movement, only to see their hopes dashed repeatedly.

Just such a tizzy has seized the foreign policy establishment after it emerged that three of the groupings jostling for Security Council reforms on their terms – the L69, the African Group and Caricom – had achieved some sort of convergence on a draft resolution for expansion of the Security Council. (More details here and here.)

Hardeep S Puri, who has served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, sees this as the “best possible assimilation of a comprehensive approach.”

“We have before us, for the first time, a draft resolution on which the largest possible consensus could be achieved,” notes Puri. This draft envisages the expansion of the UNSC membership to 27, with two permanent and two additional non-permanent seats for Africa, two additional permanent and one non-permanent seat for Asia, one permanent seat for Western Europe (WEOG), one non-permanent seat each for Eastern Europe & Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and one permanent and one non-permanent seat for Latin America and Caribbean States.

But it is difficult to share this optimism about the prospects for reforms in the short term, given the logistical and power-politics complexities that cramp the process (more on that here). As Richard Gowan, associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, points out (here), the dream of UN Security Council reform is fading rapidly.

In his estimation, the G4 grouping (India, Brazil, Germany and Japan), which looks like an increasingly fissiparous coalition, could drift apart. “It seems probable that Germany and Japan will increasingly look for low-key approaches, including compromises that would give them enhanced status in the Council but nor permanent seats.” India and Brazil may not compromise, knowing tha their leverage will increase over time.

Gowan reckons that while it is possible that divisions within the G4 will create new openings for discussing council reform, it is far more likely that there will be “a general loss of interest in the issue after a period of frenetic debates.” This, he adds, may reflect the reality that council reform is currently impossible. “Or it may reinforce a broader impression… that the council itself is in decline.”

That may be a more realistic assessment of the prospects for meaningful reform of the UN Security Council, as part of which India yearns for a seat at the high table. Rather than bang away on the doors of an ineffectual train compartment, Indian diplomatic and strategic interests would arguably be better served by investing resources on enhancing our economic and strategic clout. India should “own” its neighbourhood, which it has thus far failed abysmally to do; power projection over longer spatial distances will follow organically.

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2013 16:15 PM

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