A crown of thorns

These were the words, it seems, that most Indians were eagerly waiting to hear when US President Barack Obama addressed the joint session of the Indian parliament:

“I can say today — in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

His somewhat guarded announcement of support for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was lapped up by Indian commentators. But it also attracted a lot of media attention internationally. Most foreign analysts emphasise that this announcement will not mean anything substantive for India, as the Security Council reform is a complicated process which is unlikely to move forward presently.

But that is to miss the point altogether. It was not about a permanent seat at the UNSC. The Government of India and most Indian analysts know that an endorsement by Mr Obama is not enough to secure India a place at the table. Today, neither India nor the United States, even together, can ensure the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly and an unanimous agreement among all the existing permanent members.

Photo: Yang & Yun

So what was the significance of the announcement? It was simply something that the Indians wanted to hear from Mr Obama. Ever since he was elected president, his commitment to take forward the India-US relationship, a legacy of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush, has been doubted in India. Mr Obama’s pre-election proposal for an special envoy on Kashmir, his setting of an early date for US troops to leave Afghanistan and his espousal at Beijing of a role for China in South Asia had raised substantive question marks about his commitment to the India-US relationship. So this endorsement of India’s bid for a UNSC seat was perhaps the best way to reverse that impression. It may be substantively nowhere near the nuclear deal signed under President Bush but Mr Obama has attempted symbolism of a similar scale with this declaration. Going by the exuberant reactions in the Indian media, it seems he has succeeded.

Notwithstanding the public posturing by the Indian government and many analysts, is India really desperate for a permanent UNSC seat? The answer came earlier this year from India’s former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran wherein he christened India a “premature power”.

India’s relative power globally has outstripped the indices of personal and social well-being, unlike in the established industrialised powers, where they have historically moved in sync. We will need to overcome the ambivalence this creates and embrace a more proactive regional and global role in line with our national power. A seat at the high table should be sought not as an end in itself but as an opportunity to negotiate arrangements conducive to our economic and social development, and the overall welfare of our people. That should be for our agenda for the next decade.

In other words, a permanent seat in the UNSC will force India to make tough calls on global issues which is likely to place New Delhi in a difficult position vis-à-vis many other countries. India is currently not at that stage of social and economic development where it can afford to antagonise other countries by taking positions over issues which are not directly of its concern.

India’s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA in 2009, which caused so much anguish to India and hurt India-Iran relations, was a one-off matter. But as a permanent member of the UNSC, India will have to make such binary choices with greater regularity. The potential pitfalls of sitting at that high table now far outweigh the advantages of seeking that seat as an end in itself. The current stint as a non-permanent member of the UNSC is going to be instructive for India while firming up its decision to push harder for a permanent seat.

In any case, the United Nations is an organisation of a bygone era that holds little value in today’s age. Its importance and impact will decrease further in coming years. What India needs today — and for the next decade, as Shyam Saran suggests — is more economic and social development, and that will come from India’s active role in forums like the G-20 and from other bilateral arrangements. Rather than fritter away its energies on archaic institutions like the UNSC, India must focus on faster economic growth, equitable development and robust internal security for the next decade.

Declaring support for India’s candidature as a permanent member of the UNSC was a low-hanging fruit that President Obama plucked to redeem his own image in India. It is not going to propel India into the permanent membership of the UNSC. Fortunately so, for the permanent membership of that dysfunctional body is merely a symbolic crown — a crown of thorns — that India can afford to do well without.