Clearly India’s call at the United Nations General Assembly for wholesale change is driven by its long cherished desire to be one of the permanent members at the Security Council. As long ago as the 1980s, India has felt that it has a right to be one of the veto holding members. It sees itself as one of the powers of the world. However it faces hurdles to this dream beyond its current reach although not unsurmountable.
Once established, the United Nations system has become an inflexible monolith caught in the maze of its own making and the ethics or rather lack of them of international politics. India’s Permanent Representative to UN, Syed Akbaruddin suggested that it is out of date. There are five permanent members and 10 non permanent members. The Security Council has immense power including deciding whether to wage war, negotiate peace and even to allow membership to a new country.
The permanent members are United Kingdom, United States, France, Russian Federation and China. Russia replaced the Soviet while China replaced the Taiwan Government which calls itself Republic of China. India and Pakistan have often tailed each other in being one of the non permanent members. Both have been in the Security Council seven times since 1947. Trouble is that both countries are trying to get into the security council as veto holding permanent members. India to fulfil its pretensions of a civilisation and world power and Pakistan probably to challenge India on Kashmir. Kashmir. And they don’t get on with each other enough to say, ‘You first’.
In 1992 the UN set up an open ended working group on question of Equitable Representation on and increase in the Membership of the Security Council. No action has been taken except increasing the non permanent members to 10 from 7.
India and Pakistan are not the only ones seeking permanent membership. While Pakistan may find it much more difficult than India, since India has tarnished its image as a ‘terrorist State’, Pakistan nevertheless encourages other Muslim countries to seek an Islamic permanent member. That in itself is a complex equation to solve as there is little unity among Islamic countries. Besides there will be a demand for separate Shia and Sunni State membership.
But Germany, Brazil, Japan are others leading the chorus seeking a permanent membership. Any extension wont be complete without Africa demanding for at least a place for one African State. However the UN is already a dysfunctional creaky machine with any of the five vetoes blocking progress. With more veto holding countries, the institution will be a bureaucratic nightmare going around in obfuscating circles.
Even if India is able to win over the other competitors, diffuse a call for a veto seat from the Islamic block by marginalising Pakistan, there is the China veto. China is in no mood to allow India to sit on the same table as it, at least not at the moment, despite occasionally saying it has no objections.
This is just the wider international politics that India has to overcome before the security council and then General Assembly open the gate to India. India’s regional record isn‘t encouraging to boost it as a regional peace maker. After all one of the vital roles of Security Council is to keep peace in the world and mediate between conflicts.
It is understandable then that India is now pitching for a complete overhaul of the United Nations system. Sushma Swaraj made a rally call to the BRICS. But for a country that has been governing in ‘safe mode’ with British inherited systems since 1947, it is a bit daring to ask the rest of the world to embark on wholemeal changes to an institution made around the same time in history.
If India wants to get onto to the top table, it has to bring something new and unique to the forum. Currently the world is largely divided in two broad paradigm blocks. There is the west and the protowestern post colonial countries, extoling democracy, rule of law etc etc. Then there is the rest of the world trying to avoid being assimilated into this western idea of the perfect State. The Islamic countries and China are some of the big alternatives that challenge a universalist paradigm still being pursued by the UN.
India’s establishment and political leaders have mostly been chasing big matrixes, such as biggest economy, largest democracy, biggest Army etc, without improving quality of life of the largest percentage of its citizens. It still has the highest poverty numbers, largest homelessness, most number of kids in child labour and so on. And its Army has been named in quite a few UN reports for violating human rights under Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
India has not strived to be a beacon to aspire to for other countries. It hasn’t shown leadership in human rights, resolving internal conflicts and greater democratic engagement. India may boost of a distinct civilisation but it remains firmly in the first block of proto western post colonial States. Why would China agree to another one from that stable with UK, USA and France already holding majority at the Security Council?
Neither has India been able to offer a new direction or a new ideology that is different than the western westphalian Nation State. Its two political alternatives, the secularism of Congress and Hindutva of BJP are essentially constructions born in colonialism. One (Congress) tries to mimic western secularism and the other (Hindutva) has many sister ideologies around the world that arose as ‘indigenised’ nationalisms in reaction to colonialism.
If India has any chance of getting to the permanent veto status, it has to offer the world something so unique that its competitors can feel compelled to say that what India can give to the world deserves a permanent membership to bring some calm to a world enmeshed with conflicts and social problems. Simply playing on power and complaining that the UN is not set to cope with technological advances isn’t going to persuade Japan, Germany , Brazil or the Islamic block to hold back their ambitions for the sake of India. It is not as if India itself has changed the constitution to cope with technological developments.
It is also a far fetched idea that the entire UN system will lend itself to be reviewed. If India itself has been fearful of changing anything fundamentally from the British Indian State, lest the edifice comes falling apart, why does it think the powers that now control UN will consider changing the UN, particularly as it works for them.
To expect the world body to change, India itself has to show the courage to change and embrace pluralism and be the road to the solutions the world seeks. Then its ambition of a permanent seat wont be unsurmountable.