Seat at the High Table

November, 2010
By Sanaa Arora

The recently concluded UN Security Council elections for the 2011-2012 term saw India returning to the “High Table” after a gap of 19 years. India’s victory was expected as it was the sole candidate for the Asian seat, after Kazakhstan withdrew earlier this year. However the margin by which it won has made domestic audience in India ecstatic. India received support from 187 out of 192 countries, an impressive victory which is being touted as a record win in recent years. India’s success is particularly sweet after the embarrassing loss it suffered in 1996 when it received only 40 votes and lost to Japan. The comfortable entry into the Council this time around has been hailed as a diplomatic success. 

While there is no doubt that India performed extremely well at the elections, it is perhaps time to remove the rose-colored lenses and take an objective look at its place in the Security Council. This is even more important because India has larger ambitions of obtaining a permanent seat with veto in the Council. India is a part of the G4 (Group of 4) with Japan, Germany and Brazil who claim permanent seats, and have jointly pushed for UNSC reforms. 

It is interesting to evaluate India’s participation in the Security Council versus its other G4 partners.  Among the G4 nations, India has been elected the least number of times in the 24 year period from 1987 to 2010. In this period, the other G4 countries each served between four to five rotational terms on the Council. As the world’s largest democracy and an emerging economic power, India should have been more visible as a non permanent member. 

This may be due to the fact that the dynamics for contesting the Asian seat are vastly different from the bids for other regional groupings. Although India considers itself as a serious contender for the time when the permanent membership is expanded, it is unlikely that a consensus will be reached in the near future. Ambassador Zahir Tanin of Afghanistan, Chair of Intergovernmental Negotiations for UNSC reforms, is presently leading text based negotiations for the first time, which is a heartening development. However progress is still slow and agreement on key issues is a long way off. Hence India needs to look beyond its focus on only the permanent membership to more relevant objectives in the next few years. These objectives should include being re-elected on a more consistent basis to the rotational council, on the same lines as its G4 partners, particularly Japan. This would require more imaginative foreign policy skills in its own neighbourhood and the rest of Asia. India certainly cannot afford another long gap to return to the Security Council. Hopes for early UNSC reforms in India’s favour, may prove to be foolhardy. 

This makes the 2011-2012 term particularly significant for India. It is a fitting time to seize the opportunity and demonstrate leadership. India’s performance and its stand on critical issues will be carefully watched and scrutinized by many. This may affect the support it receives from various quarters in its bid to become a permanent member in the future. 

Some of the issues on which India may have to take a difficult stand include Iran, Israel – Palestine, and Afghanistan amongst others. In addition to the changing paradigms of peace and security, the Security Council has ventured into non traditional areas such as energy and climate change. India’s vote on such complex affairs and the role it assumes in negotiations and decision making will lay the basis on which any future claims to play a larger role in global politics will be judged. As the famous quote says ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’ and India will do well to not only remember but to live by the wisdom.

The 2011-2012 term is also noteworthy because for the first time, alliances such as BRIC, RIC, BASIC and IBSA will serve simultaneously at the “High Table”. It is remarkable that India is the only country which is common to all four alliances. This may prove to be a challenge as much as it is an advantage. Since, while India will have the chance to explore joint areas of cooperation within the alliances, it may also have to play a balancing act on some issues.  With half of the G20 being represented on the council beginning January 2011, it is pertinent that India is not just a face in the crowd but at the forefront of negotiations and decision making. 

The world has drastically changed in the last two decades and the issues confronting the Security Council are vastly different from the ones India navigated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. India itself has undergone a huge transformation and will be at the Council for the first time since liberalization and the 1992 economic reforms. 

The expectations are high. India needs to demonstrate its very best diplomatic abilities. Leveraging this opportunity to make India’s case for permanent membership stronger is the real litmus test that lies ahead.