India’s return to the United Nations Security Council is both a laudatory and a cautionary tale of diplomacy. The former because it has always been an embarrassment that a country that publicly aspires for a permanent seat to the council has not been able to get itself elected to a rotating seat since 1992. Further, its last serious attempt at getting such a seat was a case of pride coming before a fall: an overconfident Prime Minister I.K. Gujral declaring India a shoe-in and then losing the vote to Japan. India’s win this year was certain given that it faced no opposition, but the margin of victory was large enough to be considered a sign of the country’s relatively high global standing.
However, the real test for India will be to see how it votes and how it influences the nature of the UN’s debate when it takes its seat next year. Being popular is a nice sentiment in a kindergarten, it indicates something else in geopolitical circles. It indicates a country that is unwilling to make hard decisions, whether in its own or the international interest. India will face no end of such decisions over the coming years. The most obvious is the issue of how the world will respond to Iran’s illegitimate nuclear operations.
But that perennial problem, Palestine, as well as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime and North Korea, can be expected to make an appearance. The Indian delegate would prefer to take a bathroom break during such votes, but making tough decisions is part and parcel of being a responsible global power. So India should not shy away from taking positions that will make it less popular in parts of the world. In diplomacy, nice guys become irrelevant.
India will have two years to show it has the right stuff to be a permanent member — though Security Council reform remains a distant and arguably receding prospect during a time of economic recession and an absence of coherent leadership at the global level. Indians like to stress tangible numbers — economic growth rates, military numbers and the like — to show why their country is a great power-in-the-making. But it is the ability to apply such capability that is more important. The ability to propose solutions to global problems. The ability to put together a domestic political consensus to deliver on diplomatic promises. The ability to enact policies that may be unpopular at home and abroad but which are accepted as being in the greater good. There continues to be doubts about India’s ability in these areas. The UN vote has given New Delhi an opportunity to prove these sceptics wrongs.