Why does India want a permanent place in the Security Council?

India cannot get even SAARC to function and our focus at UN is confined to Pakistan and terror; and yet we feel we are being unjustly denied a place at the high table

Photo: social media
Photo: social media

Aakar Patel

A permanent, veto-wielding seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is India’s right, according to India. The anger, irritation and frustration at not being accorded this entitlement shows up on occasion as it did this week in New York.

On 22 August, our representative said “How can we aspire for common security, when the common good of the global south is continued to be denied representation in its decision making” and that “a truly representative Security Council is the most pressing need of the hour."

Previously, our frustration has been reported under headlines like ‘Impaired organ: India slams UNSC on slow pace of reforms’. Apparently, we feel “deep frustration with the change process that has been on for many years without progress”.

Such reports also often tell us why there has been no progress on reforming the Security Council. The fact is that we are not the only contenders for a position on the high table. There are others, and they also feel they are being denied.

The report said: "While there is a broad consensus for reforming the Security Council, some countries - loosely called the Coffee Club - have opposed it to block the claims of countries that they believe are their regional rivals. Pakistan is a member of this club. Other members are Argentina, which opposes Brazil’s claim; Italy and Spain, who oppose Germany; and Australia, which opposes Japan."

China will also oppose Japan of course, as it does India. The reform cannot be done without complete consensus, especially of our rivals. China has a veto on our entry and the idea that it will want us to share its power on the global stage formally is delusional.

Holders of power do not want to dilute it unless compelled to. France is a second-rate power today, as is the United Kingdom. They have lost a lot of power since their colonial period era. Why would their governments want to voluntarily let go of whatever they have remaining or in some way let other nations share it? Of course, they will not.

What can India do? Not much, other than express frustration. And this is amplified by the fact that Pakistan constantly and publicly insists that India should be denied the place.

As someone who has seen this being replayed over the decades, it is hard not to find India’s behaviour inconsistent. We demand to be given our due and be allowed to play with the big boys on the global stage but our focus is on Pakistan and ‘cross border terror’ and little else. Our field of vision is narrow.

Going through the annual appearances of India at the UN General Assembly, if we were to remove the carping about Pakistan from the speeches of the prime minister and foreign minister, little of substance would remain. It appears as if we cannot help but be Pavlovian.

India cannot get even SAARC to function, but think we have something of value to offer the rest of the world.

The question to consider is why India wants a position on the Security Council. The Jana Sangh’s first manifesto said the party would seek a place on the Security Council but offered no path to getting there or explaining why it was important that the place be secured.

It appears that we want the honour for two reasons, of which one is defensive.

After India rescinded from its promise to conduct a plebiscite in Kashmir (this was conditional on Pakistan military vacating western Kashmir, which it did not do) we tried for decades to ensure that the UN resolutions on a plebiscite in Kashmir died or became dormant.

Many Indians might not know of the existence of the United Nations Military Observer Group, and its presence in India to oversee our dispute with Pakistan. In 2014 Modi government ordered it to vacate its office on Purana Qila Road in Delhi, without knowing that this was not possible. The office still exists of course.

India has always felt the pressure of its oppression in Kashmir internationally and has tried to head it off through securing a veto. There appears to be no other reason that we want the position.

What will we do on the Security Council that we cannot do today outside it?

Germany and Japan wield far more influence in the world than France though neither has a place on the Security Council or even a proper army.

China’s rise in the world has not come because of its place on the P5. It has come because of its economic growth and its ability to project through trade and giant global infrastructure projects and that power more than its ability to wield a veto.

India’s problem is that it has a fifth of China’s economic power, not so much that it doesn’t get to sit at the high table.

If we had China’s economic power, it would not matter as much that we were not on the Security Council.

The other reason we want to be on the P5 is our entitlement based on the size of our population and the notion that we are a civilisational entity of higher quality than others. This is supposed to make the rest of the world go weak at the knee and hand us our inheritance.

The first is a non-starter because the United Nations is a gathering of nation-states not ranked by population. On the second there is not much to say other than, even if it is in some small measure to be true, India’s behaviour over the last few years has done much to undo it. We don’t have to go there today.

The fact is that we don’t really even know why we want to be on the Security Council or what we would do with veto power if we were suddenly handed that bauble.

We cannot bind our region economically, we have hostile or borderline hostile relations with all of our neighbours, and if we had any chance of being the great power in South Asia, we have ceded much of that space to China.

We are one of the poorest nations on earth, and contribute $23 million to the UN annually, which is less than Australia, Canada, Korea, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Turkey.

The UK and France pay five times more than us, Germany seven times, Japan 10 times more, China 15 times. In 2018, the United States gave $10 billion, which was 400 times what we give. That is why they have power.

India has had no proper discussion internally on why we want to be on the Security Council, what we will do with the position once we get it and what the cost and obligations and responsibilities of the position will be if we were to get it. We know only that we want it and we demand to be given it.

(Aakar Patel is Chair, Amnesty India. Views are personal)

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