M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, September 18, 1997

A consensus is yet to emerge on the question of India staking a claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The Prime Minister's advisers and foreign office officials do not sound decisive on the issue. It should be realised that time is running short, and New Delhi's bargaining position may be seriously weakened if our decision-makers do not grasp the importance of realistically evaluating the important variables and develop working concepts in terms of Indian national interest and resources. 

At the time when India contested for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council against Japan, it was breezily assumed that with its clout as a 'non-aligned country', having a third world constituency, India would easily win against a pro-US Japan. Obviously things can be made look relatively simple it viewed by South Block and establishment intellectuals through rose-tined spectacles - especially NAM and Asian-African-Latin American unity of the Fidel Castro vintage. We still have with us Ministers, opposition leaders, senior bureaucrats and media commentators who continue to pronounce on an even greater future for non-alignment, without considering it necessary to measure the relative importance of Japan - a country with which we have serious scenarios to consider to meet the challenges of strategic and ideological realignments in Asia.

There simply could not have been a favourable outcome to our fight with Japan over the non-permanent seat. Had we defeated Japan it would not have been construed as a prudent realignment of our cold war tilt towards the Soviet Bloc, and our defeat only showed to the world that we had failed to assess our gains and losses even in such a relatively minor project as a non-permanent seat in the Security Council, and brought home the realisation that problems in the post-cold war world cannot be magically solved by the mantra of "non-alignment and third world unity".

A new chapter had now begun relating to the issue of a permanent seat which requires every member state of the UN including India to take a good look at the deeper implications of the modification of structures and processes of the world organisation. If on the earlier occasion we expected too much, in the present the trauma of defeat has resulted in the extreme opposite - total pessimism. Thus we seem to be on the verge of making the foolish mistake of embracing diplomatic isolationism. Some discouragement is inevitable, and Mr. Gujral is understandably reluctant to stake his claim having burnt his fingers on the last occasion, but it is foolhardy to assume that the failure of a campaign for a permanent seat for India is a forgone conclusion.

The point is not to get caught in the superficial similarity of the two cases, but to incisively analyse their differences and the fresh opportunities. This would enable portraying a new vision of India in the 50th year of her freedom by rebuilding our foreign policy, not for aggrandisement but for a global leadership role for India in which we share international power and decision-making responsibility. From such a perspective it is an entirely legitimate aim for India to initiate policy ideas and proposals from Asia as an equal partner with China (already a member) and Japan (certain to win a permanent seat), not through the non-aligned rhetoric and debate with its accompanying postures to which we have got accustomed, but through coalition-building and definition of issues appropriate to the changing political contexts that make up the post-cold war world.

Some of the factors obstructing the advancement of our candidature for a permanent seat will have to be removed by negotiating simultaneously or consecutively with constituencies which may have mutually antagonistic preferences but stand to gain from Indian support. Chinese diplomacy is a good illustration of the way in which bargaining leverage can be achieved by a mixture of direct incentives, threats and side-payments to influence decisions. A relevant example was recently provided by Beijing's success in discouraging participation by almost the entire international community in the celebrations for the return of jurisdiction over the canal to Panama, to convey China's disapproval over the invitation to Taiwan to attend the event.

If we wish to give ourselves a winning chance to gain a permanent seat with veto power, we have to intervene at the outset to establish our bargaining goals instead of merely making a formal announcement of intention, and then sitting back without evolving strategies of rewards and punishments. The Government and the foreign policy community should consider the following framework to help them work together to enhance our negotiating process:

First, the Government and the Opposition need to reach a consensus about the absolute indispensability of a permanent seat with veto for India as we enter the threshold of the 21st century. As in the case of Kashmir, this should be expressed through a unanimous resolution of Parliament as an effective signal of our political will to the world community.

Second, the foreign office has to break out of the closed circle in which it has placed itself in the cold war years and which has retarded the development of multiple options. No one would deny that at one time India's international image was raised on the basis of strategies of coordination which routinely advocated certain ideological preferences. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the contemporary American global predominance, an exaggerated third world trade unionism is not needed to placate any constituency. Hindsight shows that Indian understanding of the Arab world was quite flawed until we established full diplomatic relations with Israel and discovered that this single action actually reduced cognitive barriers to bargaining with individual Arab states. We need multiple channels in West Asia and also in other parts of the world.

Third, we need a better understanding of the new world order imperatives of the United States, otherwise there will be inevitable disappointments in Indo-US relations, and also adverse implications for India's search for a permanent berth in the Security Council. India should make a clear distinction between its macro-management of communication and cooperation between the two sides. While India should rule out hegemonic involvement on the part of the United States in any of India's regional conflicts and refuse to accept any sort of Munich syndrome for its territorial disputes with Pakistan and China, New Delhi has an opportunity to enhance its role as a stabilising factor in the international system on a long-term basis.

India cannot be subjected to the same pressures as Israel to give up territories in return for full and genuine peace. India should exchange frank opinions with Washington on the strategic designs of other major global players, and how New Delhi and Washington can cope with states which may be entering more aggressive phases in their foreign policies.

Fourth, India's commercial strategy should be used fully as a catalyst for agreement on New Delhi as a permanent member of the Security Council. This will involve identifying major sources and institutions where commercial diplomacy can indirectly affect procedures and interests at the United Nations.
Fifth, the foreign office needs to be clear about Pakistan's role as a "spoiler" and outline possible steps to reduce Indian anxiety on this score. The difficulty with the platitudes of the Gujral doctrine is that it does not distinguish between accommodative and competitive strategies, and does not put forward any clear hypothesis about protecting Indian security and values when the other side remains committed to confrontation in spite of the existence of viable alternatives. To forestall Pakistan, India would have to create a bargaining asymmetry in its favour as soon as possible, instead of adapting a wait and see attitude as our diplomacy is prone to do.

If some of these approaches lead to progress, we must bring together the two strands of policy-making and intelligence analysis, so that we are not taken by surprise over the result as in the case of our bid for a non-permanent seat. The realities of international politics and power demand constant alertness, but that does not exclude risk-taking and bold measures to promote national core principles and norms.

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