India regained Independence two years after the creation of the United Nations, yet it was one of the 51 founding members. The Congress party and Jawaharlal Nehru had a long history of interest in, and engagement with, world affairs. The ideals of world peace and global solidarity based on sovereign equality, mutual respect, and universal tolerance were immensely attractive to independent India.
There have been periodic misunderstandings and disenchantments, from the early referral of Kashmir to censorious remarks in the Security Council during the Bangladesh war and after the nuclear tests in 1998. India was soundly defeated the last time it competed for an elected Security Council seat; the failure to be a permanent member is a permanent sore; and the quixotic decision late in the day to field an Indian candidate for the post of Secretary-General last year has been followed this year by a campaign to have Hindi recognised as one of the U.N.'s official languages.
Nevertheless, Nehru took the U.N. seriously and India was taken very seriously in the United Nations. It is hard to think of another country that, over the entirety of the issue, had more influence in driving the campaign against the criminal apartheid regime in South Africa.
A country's role, respect and influence in the U.N. cannot be divorced from its international political, military, economic, and ideational status. On the 50th anniversary of Independence, I had argued in Foreign Affairs that India was neither powerful enough to bully, rich enough to bribe nor principled enough to inspire. Today, India is a nuclear power, has achieved impressive economic growth for over a decade, is a powerhouse in information technology, and is regularly visited by senior world leaders.
Nevertheless, India is still distracted by the Kashmir dispute and restricted by Pakistan to subcontinental status. Its per capita income is stuck firmly in the middle of the developing countries' average. Its cultural chauvinists and economic nationalists are profoundly anti-national in the consequences of their religious and economic agendas. And its international influence is still below the peaks attained during the golden age of the 1950s.
India's most tangible contribution to the U.N. is in peace operations. Among the largest contributors in terms of numbers of missions, force commanders, and personnel, India is currently the third highest contributor, with 9,332 Indian soldiers and police on U.N. duty overseas. This sounds less impressive when we note that the two biggest contributors are Pakistan and Bangladesh. Is that the best company that India can aspire to in the world of international diplomacy?
Earlier this year, the U.N. deployed a contingent of 103 Indian police officers in Liberia as its first-ever all-woman peacekeeping unit whose performance has won widespread praise and acclaim.
Participation in U.N. peace operations is not a politically contentious issue in India, nor a constitutionally complicated exercise, nor even a divisive subject of public debate. There are three broad reasons why India is asked to contribute troops to U.N. operations: the size and professionalism of its armed forces; the lack of such forces from most developing countries until recently; and India's influence in world affairs.
Conversely, the contribution to the proposed peacekeeping operation by India, and to regional and international stability by the proposed mission, have been constant refrains justifying India's involvement in international peacekeeping. Part of the explanation for this has been a creeping apartheid in U.N. peacekeeping, where the poor countries contribute troops while the rich western countries provide logistical support and dominate the senior policymaking ranks in the U.N. system.
Of course, India gains some credit for this, like being elected to the new Peacebuilding Commission. But have Indian policymakers done a hard-nosed evaluation of whether the credit ledger is overshadowed by the debit? Of the 2,379 U.N. peacekeepers killed until July 1, 2007, 123 were Indians - more than any other nationality.
Martin Plaut, the BBC's Africa analyst, has asked whether the pervasive presence of 50,000 U.N. troops across Africa meant that the organisation that had helped to end European colonialism in Africa was busy re-colonising the continent.
Thirdly, in public, governmental, and U.N. perception around the world, India becomes bracketed with poor countries with bloated and antiquated defence forces desperate to earn foreign money. Margarita Mathiopoulos, chair of the Transatlantic Forum of the Free Democratic Party of Germany and CEO of the European Advisory Group, referred derisively in the International Herald Tribune to "the usual suspects of U.N. peacekeeping, the impoverished Third World armies who only deplo y their soldiers for their per diem."
An unfortunate historical failing of Indian diplomacy has been not to let national interests come in the way of abstract principles. We are easily seduced by words of praise and thrilled by a pat on the back. Such gratifying gestures are no substitute for rigorous calculation of national interests. In the rarefied U.N. atmosphere in particular, it is easy to be mesmerised by the phantom attraction of numbers, when what matters is the composition of voting blocs. Sometimes being in the minority can be a badge of honour and better serve the national interest.
India must look at the balance of composition of U.N. missions, and contribute only if there are at least some industrialised countries also willing to shoulder the burden. Only so will we begin to put a distance between the professional Indian military and the image of U.N. operations as something fit only for impoverished and amateurish contributors in it for the money.
Mobilising support from one's own region has a multiplier effect in U.N. diplomacy, while opposition from one's own region has a divider effect. India's U.N. diplomacy is constantly handicapped by the lack of South Asian solidarity, as seen last year in the competition for Secretary-General when New Delhi succeeded in cementing its reputation as a regional spoiler without victory for its own candidate. Conversely, had the government come to this decision earlier, it may just possibly have secured victory.
The candidacy also put a spanner in the works for some urgently needed reform efforts that India was spearheading. The most pressing and of immediate national benefit is restructuring the Security Council and reforming its workings. A second, probably more easily attained, is re-establishing the General Assembly as the primary organ, including the substantial rather than a rubber-stamping role in choosing the Secretary-General. The third and most important is reclaiming the organisation overall as the forum, voice and servant of the poorer and weaker majority instead of a tool of domination by the rich and powerful minority.
Should the U.N. remain reform-proof, the majority will have to contemplate walking away in order to take away from it the universal legitimacy that is hijacked to become the handmaiden of raw power. Can India be the champion to stop the organisation being "an after-sales service provider" for the U.S., as one American critic put it? Without compromising core national interests, India should use its growing wealth and power to return the country and the world body to foundational values and ideals in the service of humanity.