With five months to go before India takes its elected seat on the Security Council for 2021-2022, the country’s foreign minister says it will stay true to its founding tradition of nonalignment and not take sides with any big power.
“Nonalignment was a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape,” the minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said during a virtual conference on Indian television on July 20. He added, however, “One aspect was independence, which remains a factor of continuity for us.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after independence from Britain in 1947, was among the founders of the nonaligned movement, often called NAM for short. Its roots originated in discussions in the 1950s among 29 Asian and African leaders opposed to domination by former colonial powers. It became a formal international organization in 1961 and now has about 120 members.
Jaishankar, whose formal title is minister of external affairs, was India’s ambassador to the United States in 2014-2015 and later head of the Indian foreign ministry before assuming his current office at the end of May 2019. His comments dampen some official American hopes, fostered by four presidential administrations, that India may have been moving into Washington’s column in important areas of international policy and Security Council voting.
Most recently, Donald Trump and India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, have been lavish in their public displays of fraternity, holding hands and praising each other in huge rallies in India and the US.
In his TV interview, Jaishankar demurred. He did not overlook the fragility of the present American government or the decline of the US on the global scene and what that means for everybody else.
“The consequence of repositioning of the United States, that the big umbrella is now smaller than it used to be, has allowed many other countries to play more autonomous roles,” he said. “It doesn’t affect us as much because we were never part of an alliance system and we will never be. But countries who depended more on the US are finding they have to take a call themselves on many issues.”
India, with 1.3 billion people, he said, must take a more proactive role in “big issues” like climate, terrorism and “connectivity.” In the past, India has often been absent or obstructive in international organizations and conferences.
David Malone, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and a former Canadian high commissioner (ambassador) in India, is the author of “Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy.”
In the book, which was published in 2011, three years before Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the first of two especially decisive elections, in 2014 and 2019, Malone quotes a leading Indian public intellectual, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, suggesting that India is “not good at cutting deals.”
Malone summarizes the reputation India brought to the Security Council during previous terms. The coming two-year membership will be its eighth since the founding of the UN. (Pakistan has also held an elected seat seven times and is hoping for its eighth in 2024.)
“While India has consistently been a (selective) rule taker in the multilateral system, it likely harbored a desire to be a rule maker and occasionally acted accordingly,” Malone wrote.
“Thus, while effusively committing itself to the UN Charter and the cause of peace, India forcibly evicted the Portuguese from Goa in 1961, adopted a militarily aggressive posture on the border issue with China in 1962, intervened in the East Pakistan conflict in 1971, annexed the Kingdom of Sikkim in 1975 and intervened in the Sri Lankan conflict in 1987,” Malone wrote, adding:
“India has consistently championed disarmament at the UN, yet it has conducted nuclear tests twice and refuses to sign non-proliferation and non-testing treaties, advancing a variety of ‘principles’ that many countries — not just those of the West — find confounding to justify its actions.”
An update: A year ago, in August 2019, the Modi government invaded Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority area (still in dispute with Pakistan and China) and stripped it of its constitutionally guaranteed political and economic autonomy. A months-long crippling lockdown under a brutal occupation followed and is still going on. The Modi government has also passed legislation that bars immigration to India from Muslim-majority countries.
On the China front this year, sudden fierce battles with Chinese soldiers broke out on the precipitous Himalayan edge of Kashmir, when Indian troops observed Chinese forces encroaching on land in the Ladakh area claimed by India.
In an interview with PassBlue from Tokyo last month, Malone said that India was facing both domestic political issues and the challenges of working within a disorderly, fragmented international scene. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit India hard, with current confirmed cases rising to 1.7 million, the third-highest rate in the world, after the US (4.6 million) and Brazil, with 2.7 million.
“My sense is that India will meet the challenge,” Malone said in the interview about India at the UN. “It has a superb foreign service and a deft foreign minister who knows UN files very well indeed, and who masters geostrategic files as few others can, anywhere globally. But the sailing in the Council will doubtless not be as smooth as in the past, and may reveal wider geostrategic rifts involving multiple countries, well beyond India’s bilateral relations with this or that power.”
All specialists interviewed for this article have pointed to the crucial importance of the American presidential election on Nov. 3.
Apart from Jaishankar as foreign minister, two exceptional Indian diplomats have been appointed to lead India’s UN mission in New York City. The new ambassador, already in place, is T. S. Tirumurti, a Middle East expert with service in Egypt as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia and among the Palestinians. He has recently been in charge of Persian Gulf and Arab affairs in the Indian foreign ministry.
Tirumurti’s deputy at the UN is K. Nagaraj Naidu, a career diplomat and fluent Chinese speaker who has served in China on several diplomatic assignments, in Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Stephen Schlesinger, who wrote the classic account of the UN’s origins, “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” is among those who follow the organization closely and suggest that both domestic and global events will have to be watched to determine how India engages in New York and whether its attitudes on multilateralism have changed.
“India is notoriously aloof about global organizations in general,” Schlesinger wrote to PassBlue, responding to questions about what to expect from India on the Security Council. “However, I suspect that India’s recent confrontations with China may make the country more attentive to the UN in the future, especially as the Chinese seem to be moving to capture so many key positions within the UN, and India has not tried with the same intensity to populate the organization with their diplomats.
“Now that China is the second largest contributor to the UN’s annual budget, I wonder if India may try to increase its financial support to the body,” Schlesinger wrote. The question is, how much will the Modi government become involved with UN issues?
“Modi is so determined to establish his own dominance in India that he may not be paying much attention to what goes on in NYC,” Schlesinger added. “He is a bit of a parochial figure.”
Joseph Chamie, a demographer and former director of the UN population division, has been tracking India for decades as the country moves close to overtaking China as the world’s most-populous nation and what the numbers mean. Chamie and his wife, Mary, were pioneer Peace Corps volunteers in India in the 1960s, before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who feared American influence, closed the program.
In that period, India (and Gandhi, particularly) drew close to Russia, while still professing nonalignment. Looking inward in succeeding years, India fell well behind China in social development and international influence. Its future trajectory, now in the shadow of a more powerful, if troubled, China, is uncertain.
“Since the last time India was on the Security Council in 2011-2012,” Chamie said, “India has changed and so has the world around it. . . . Political developments, both outside and inside India, especially with respect to China and Pakistan, can be expected to influence India’s positions, strategies and voting.”
China has, for example, backed Pakistan’s efforts to bring the issue of Indian actions in Kashmir to the Security Council. Decades-old but still relevant UN resolutions designed to end the standoff in Kashmir have not been carried out because of Indian opposition.
Chamie said that while India is on the Security Council, it is likely to reopen its lingering campaign for a permanent Council seat, which the US has at least formally backed, although most diplomats consider it a lost cause.
Significantly, China, possessing a veto, has vowed to block moves India has made to become a permanent Council member. Russia, still a military supplier to India, has offered perfunctory support. Yet in Indian popular opinion, a permanent Council seat remains an appealing cause, worthy of a big country and a mark of India’s greatness.
“India, which represents one-sixth of humanity, can be expected to return to its determined efforts to obtain a permanent seat,” Chamie said.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.