President Barack Obama came to India at a fateful moment, when global power balances are changing, with a decline in the United States’ hegemony and the rise of China and India. The visit offered India a good opportunity to tell him what kind of world order it wants and how it would achieve it while retaining its foreign policy independence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh squandered the opportunity. He allowed Mr Obama to seal military and business deals worth $20 billion to create 55,000 jobs in America, lecture India on isolating Iran and Myanmar, and sell illusions of grandeur, something the strutting Indian elite relishes.
Perhaps the greatest illusion is a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Mr Obama drew thunderous applause on this-in contrast to the yawns that greeted his tribute to Gandhi for upholding peace, non-violence and simple living. Our policy-makers aren’t bothered about non-violence or frugality. They want the Great Powers to admire India’s rising military and economic might.
That’s why they went euphoric over Mr Obama’s reference to India as an already "emerged" country, and his "offer" of a permanent Council seat. But the premise that US support instantly guarantees India the seat is contradicted by State Department official Robert Blake’s caution against an early "breakthrough".
A Council seat for India is a pie in the sky. It’s unlikely to materialise soon, if it ever does, for five reasons. First, the US cannot "offer" such a seat. That requires a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly, and approval of all five permanent Council members (US, Russia, Britain, France and China), each of whom can veto changes in the Council’s size or composition.
Second, US support for an India seat isn’t unambiguous or time-bound, but conditional upon India taking on "increased responsibility". Although it’s more affirmative than past statements-that the US supports India’s enhanced role in world affairs and the UN-Mr Obama’s statement only says: "In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member." This is much weaker than the 2005 US endorsement for Japan, which said it "unambiguously supports a permanent seat ." for Japan.
Third, the Council’s expansion isn’t currently on the UN agenda-unlike in 2004-05. Even if it’s debated, there are sharp differences between different nations and groups/blocs over what a reformed Council should look like. The US would like two new permanent members (Japan and India) with veto power, and two to three temporary members, added to the existing 15-member Council. But many countries want a much bigger Council, with greater representation for Africa and Latin America. The P-5 too differ on Council expansion. Some would like additional permanent members, but without veto power.
Japan and Germany, the largest UN funders after the US since the 1990s, have pressed their claim to permanent seats and joined India and Brazil to form the G-4. But the G-4 faces tough opposition from the "Coffee Club", comprising Italy, Spain, South Korea, Mexico, Argentina, Pakistan and others. China is especially allergic to Japan’s elevation and will probably resist India’s till the end. So, neither condition for Council reform-two-thirds majority and non-exercise of veto power-is likely to be fulfilled.
Fourth, a deadlock could arise on numerous contending claims for Council reform. In 2004-05, there was no agreement on either of the two plans proposed by Secretary General Kofi Annan. (Under Plan A, there would be six new permanent members, including two from Africa, but without veto, and another three new temporary developing-country seats. Plan B proposed eight new re-electable "semi-permanent" seats of four years’ duration, and one new temporary seat.)
The G-4 advocated a version of Plan A with reconsideration of veto power in 15 years. But the African bloc scuttled this by demanding veto power for all new permanent seats. The Muslim countries, the Arab League and the African Union all have claims that aren’t easy to reconcile. For instance, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt each wants to represent Africa in a reformed Council.
Finally, strong support for India from its own allies is in decline. From unambiguous endorsement, Russia’s position on India’s permanent membership has shifted to "consensus". And the G-4’s unity has been dented-ironically, by Washington’s backing for India. Germany and Japan have protested at being overlooked. India joined the G-4 because that would strengthen its case for membership. But India could now find the G-4 a liability.
Pakistan’s Cabinet has expressed "serious concern and strong disappointment" at Mr Obama’s statement. Pakistani analysts are livid at what they see as US "betrayal" of Pakistan and implicit approval of India’s "state terrorism" in Kashmir and its breach of Security Council resolutions. They believe the US, which wants Pakistan as an ally in Afghanistan, is catering to India’s interests without regard to Pakistan’s concerns. This is an over-reaction, rooted in their suspicions of Washington, especially resentment over its desertion of Islamabad after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But the hostility is real and likely to translate into greater "Coffee Club" activism and lobbying of China. It remains to be seen if Premier Wen Jiaobing can be persuaded during his forthcoming visit to India to modify the official stand, namely, that China "understands India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the UN and is ready .[for] consultations . on . UNSC reform".
The value of Mr Obama’s support for a permanent seat for India, then, is largely symbolic. Our elite’s elation over it is irrational and rooted in its obsession with global prestige, status, and the symbols, not substance, of power. It’s prestige, not security rationale, which drove India to cross the nuclear threshold in 1998.
Hence also the exultation last month over India’s election as a temporary member of the Council for two years, which Foreign Minister SM Krishna termed a "big day for Indian diplomacy". But India didn’t win any contest. Under the Asian rota system, India’s victory became inevitable because Kazakhstan withdrew from the race.
True, India got the highest number of votes of the five winners: 187 out of 192. This is primarily explained by India’s Herculean lobbying. During the September General Assembly session, Mr Krishna personally spoke to the foreign ministers of 123 countries-"the most intense lobbing effort by an Indian minister in such a short span". But even puny Colombia polled only one vote less than India. Another reason is that Pakistan, which wants the Asian seat in 2012, didn’t campaign against India.
Contrary to fond hopes, India’s temporary Council membership won’t help India "showcase its eligibility to become a permanent member". At issue isn’t eligibility, but political equations, which India doesn’t control. Admittedly, India’s recent election stands in sharp contrast to 1996, when it last contested the Asian seat. The result was a humiliating 142:40 defeat by Japan. But the present self-congratulation ignores the recent sea-change in India’s global status as a potential economic superpower and a great regional power.
However, it’s wrong to equate even a major status symbol such as a permanent Council seat with absolute, untrammelled power. The P-5 cannot get a Council resolution passed without at least four temporary members’ support. The General Assembly can also bypass the Council through a "Uniting for Peace" procedure.
Non-permanent members have successfully blocked P-5-sponsored resolutions-as over the 2003 US motion for invading Iraq. It was primarily blocked by small countries like Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and Chile, besides traditional US allies/supporters Mexico and Pakistan.
The real question isn’t whether India should get a permanent seat, but what kind of Great Power India should become and what causes and whose interests it should advocate. What are the true purposes of India’s growing power? On this, there has been, sadly, very little debate. Mr Obama’s visit was a good occasion to tell the world that India would bring a strong moral dimension to its global role and fiercely guard its autonomy by refusing to become Washington’s camp-follower.
This could have been done in three ways. First, by asserting India’s independent views on issues like Iran, Palestine and Afghanistan. Second, by refusing to join the US attempt to recruit various Asian states into a barely disguised strategy of China containment-the primary purpose of Mr Obama’s Asian tour. And third, by reaffirming the urgency of agendas of universal interest such as North-South inequality, militarisation of international relations, prevalence of mass-destruction weapons, and climate change.
Regrettably, Dr Singh failed to do this. He even accepted that there are "synergies" between "India’s rapid growth and US global economic leadership". On Iran, with which India has had good relations, not least through the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, he kept silent when Mr Obama urged him to isolate Tehran.
Nothing Dr Singh said conveyed India’s resolve to create a distinct, independent diplomatic-political space or act as a tribune of underprivileged peoples and nations. Building closer, equitable relations with Washington is one thing. Joining the US bandwagon is another.