As Shashi Tharoor’s interview in last month’s issue of Pragati epitomises, the obsession of the Indian political elite with the United Nations (UN) continues unabated. They have indeed “done it since the days of Nehruji, and done it well.” Even as the UN’s failures have become self-evident over the years, India has continued to view it as an almost indispensable actor in global politics that needs substantial Indian diplomatic investment. While this fascination with a moribund institution may not have had any cost in the past when India was on the periphery of global politics, today’s India cannot afford to cling on to that same old worldview. Yet India continues to expend its precious diplomatic capital on pursuing the permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and more astonishingly, in deciding to contest the elections for the post of the UN Secretary General.
India’s experience with the UN has historically been underwhelming, to put it mildly. India’s interests have suffered whenever the nation has looked to the UN for support. As the Nehruvian idealism has gradually been replaced by a more confident assertion of Indian national interests, it is time for India to make a more forceful dissociation from the perfunctory modalities of the UN. Yet Mr Tharoor’s vision of the role of the UN in Indian foreign policy continues to be one of using the organisation “as a manifest of our desire to be a responsible world citizen.”
Too much of a UN-fixation is not good for the health of any nation, much less for a rising power like India. India’s interests today are global and ever-expanding and New Delhi should have the self-confidence to declare that these interests will be protected and enhanced, irrespective of the priorities of other external actors. The Indian government is the only legitimate constitutional authority to decide when and how to use its instruments of power. And by and large there is only one criterion that it should use: protection of vital Indian interests.
The UN is an international organisation that was established in the aftermath of the Second World War and so reflects the distribution of power of that era. The Security Council where the real power lies has five permanent members with veto powers who use the organisation to further their own interests. The General Assembly for all its pretensions remains a mere talking shop. The state of affairs in the UN is so dismal that apart from some of its technical bodies, the rest of the organisation is a farce. The UN Human Rights Council, for instance, has members like Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Saudi Arabia—not quite the sort of regimes you would associate with protection of human rights. No wonder Vaclav Havel calls it “A table for tyrants”.
Why should India take such an organisation seriously and make it “a platform for establishing India’s place in the world?” More importantly why should it give the UN veto over its national interests? The most important issue in this context involves decisions on where and when to deploy military assets. So far Indian policy-makers have been playing safe by making foreign deployments of Indian military contingent on being part of a UN mission. This was perhaps tenable when Indian interests and capabilities were limited in scope. Today it only provides the government with a convenient defence against allegations of abdication of its responsibility to protect Indian interests.
When India finally decided to send its naval warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, it was hoped that Indian political and military leadership will finally be forced to evolve a coherent policy towards the use of force in securing Indian economic and strategic interests overseas. Unfortunately, that was not to be. It remains unclear under what conditions India would be willing to use force in defending its interests outside its borders.
This question needs immediate answers and the civilian and military leaderships have let the nation down by not articulating a vision for the use of Indian military assets. If some suggestions have been made, they verge on being facile. For example, ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, India’s army chief had suggested that “India takes part only in UN approved/sanctioned military operations and the UN has not mandated this action in Afghanistan so there is no question of India participating in it.”
No major power takes UN peacekeeping operations seriously. Yet India continues to be one of the largest contributors to these peacekeeping contingents. Indian forces working for the UN have suffered more casualties than any other nation. Indian policy-makers argue that this is being done not for any strategic gain but in the service of global ideals—“strengthening the world-body, and international peace and security.” “Serving the UN is serving the world,” says Mr Tharoor. One just wishes his government just focuses on serving India and its interests more forcefully. Serving the world can wait.
As Mr Tharoor makes apparent, there was always a calculation that being a leader in UN Peacekeeping would help India in its drive towards the permanent membership of the Security Council. But what did India achieve in reality? Despite its involvement in numerous peacekeeping operations in Africa for decades, the African states refused to support India’s candidature. Given China’s growing economic and military hold over Africa, the states in the region were merely pursuing their own interests. India’s candidature for a permanent membership of the Security Council will be taken seriously only when India becomes an economic and military power of global reckoning, able to protect and enhance its interests unilaterally. Notwithstanding Mr Tharoor’s claims about Indian soldiers getting actual experience and global orientation, participating in sub-standard and poorly mandated peacekeeping missions with the armed forces of poorly-trained and poorly equipped countries not only associates the Indian armed forces with the wrong company, but also erodes the ethos of our highly professional armed forces.
Mr Tharoor is spot-on though, in his analysis of the workings of the Human Rights Council. But what he says about the Human Rights Council applies in equal measure to the UN, of which it is a mere component. He argues that since the HRC “is a body of governments,” “it is difficult for India to apologise for pursuing its political interests in a body where everyone else is doing the same.” Absolutely right: international institutions like the UN are epiphenomenal—they merely reflect the underlying distribution of power in global politics. India should use the UN to pursue its own interests, rather than making its interests subservient to the whims and fancies of the UN bureaucracy. A fundamental re-assessment of India’s participation in the UN is, therefore, in order. And Mr Tharoor is the best person to do it.