In December-end '06, New Delhi sent instructions to its permanent mission in New York to make known India's intention to contest elections for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in October 2010. The directive went to other missions in the world capitals as well and is the clearest signal of New Delhi coming around to the view that since a permanent seat in an expanded UNSC isn't likely to materialise in the near future, it's worthwhile contesting in the non-permanent category. In 2005, the five permanent members, notably US and China, effectively blocked a bid by India, Japan, Germany and Brazil (the G-4) to expand the UNSC and have themselves included in it. Since then, the G-4's collective ardour for permanent seats hasn't been as visible as before, although government sources say confabulations and conferences pertaining to the issue continue apace.
The last time India won a seat in the non-permanent category was in 1990, holding it for two years till 1992. Thereafter, it lost the stomach to contest elections for a seat following the disastrous drubbing in 1996, when India managed just about 40 votes as against over 140 votes for Japan.
UNSC members other than the five permanent ones—US, UK, France, China, Russia—are elected by the General Assembly for a two-year term. Typically, the terms start on January 1. The process of choosing members to represent the five regions of the world (Asia, Africa, Latin America and Caribbean islands, Western Europe and others including Eastern Europe) is a complicated process involving a modicum of consensus within the region over the country to be backed for the non-permanent seat. There are 10 such seats, five of which are up for grabs every year in a rolling election process. Coincidentally, the decision to contest was taken after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit last December to Japan, where consultations took place on this issue.
Senior sources say a government analysis concluded that there was no contradiction between the contesting of a non-permanent seat and the quest for a permanent one in an expanded UNSC. This, of course, is a revision of the earlier thinking that India shouldn't muddy the waters contesting the non-permanent seat at a time when it was working with the G-4. Bolstering the new stand is the fact that Japan has just completed its two-year term. Also, government sources say New Delhi may be taking succour from the fact that two other G-4 members, Germany and Brazil, are also now looking to contest in the non-permanent category.
Says former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, "If this is true, it means we have seen the writing on the wall...that much as we have a strategic partnership with the US, and much as we have an agenda on permanent membership, the prospect of our aspirations finding fulfilment is remote. We are, therefore, settling for the junior team, a very realistic assessment." Agrees N. Krishnan, who served as India's man in the UN for six years in the eighties: "The permanent seat is going to take a long time. Should we put a permanent embargo on not contesting till such time the permanent seat becomes a possibility? Frankly, I don't think the G-4 amounts to much."
The government's decision has also factored in the fact that so far only two Asian countries—Thailand and Kazakhstan—have declared their intention to contest the seat in 2010. Sources say the initial temptation was to test the waters in 2009, but the move was deferred since Lebanon has already announced its candidature. There was also comfort to be derived from the fact that Indonesia—a large and influential Asian country—is already serving its two-year term and Pakistan, which has proved to be a spoiler in the past, has chosen 2011 to make its bid. (Incidentally, should India win in 2010 and Pakistan in 2011, then they would together be in the UNSC in 2012, the second time after 1984.)
Officials characterise the quest for the non-permanent seat as an "extremely technical and extremely tactical" business. Countries announce their intentions years, even decades in advance. For example, in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain wants to contest in 2029, the uae in 2021, and Yemen in 2017.
Though a win in the non-permanent category will not bolster India's candidature for a permanent seat, a loss could have consequences. Says Rajiv Sikri, till recently a secretary in the ministry of external affairs: "If we contest and fail, then it would certainly be seen as a setback to our quest for a permanent seat."
But then, UNSC expansion is too far down the road in the future. Says M.H. Ansari, who has served as India's permanent representative in the UN, "A permanent seat will not be in the offing till there is consensus among the big players. Only then will smaller players come into play. It's not a process on the frontburner of the international agenda at the moment. Pending that, the normal business of India finding a place in the UNSC has to be pursued through the known procedure." And that need not necessarily be easy. As ex-diplomat G. Parthasarathy points out, "We lost a lot of goodwill fighting a lost cause when we decided to back Shashi Tharoor against candidates of friendly countries such as South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand." But he also adds a note of optimism: "It means psychologically we are getting over the 1996 debacle."
T.P. Sreenivasan, who was in the UN mission in 1979 when India mooted the idea of increasing non-permanent seats, says, "India has no chance of getting a permanent seat unless it becomes part of the UN consensus on non-proliferation, settles the Kashmir issue with Pakistan and enhances its contribution to the UN, currently just 0.4 per cent of the budget." Japan, incidentally, is the second largest contributor to the UN, followed by Germany. Really, there's no point in a lightweight readying for a heavyweight bout!
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