SHASTRI RAMACHANDARAN | 25 MAY, 2017
NEW DELHI: The Government of India has no clear-cut stand and approach when it comes to campaigning for positions in the United Nations including specialized agencies of the world body and formations such as the Group of 77 (G77). The reason, according to informed sources and diplomats who have had a ringside view of past campaigns, is that the “calculated ambivalence” has served India’s interests “up to expectations and beyond”.
What importance does New Delhi attach to the G77? How much is India interested in G77 comprising 134 developing countries including China? When posed these two questions, all officials -- both serving and retired diplomats -- agreed to respond on condition of anonymity. The only exception was India’s former UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, currently Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern state of Kerala.
Tharoor said that his Congress party and the United Progress Alliance it had helmed for 10 years in government “certainly attached a great deal of importance to the G77, a body which India often led at the UN as the ‘global trade union of developing countries’. However as the G20, the global ‘management’ of the world's economy, grew in importance, there has inevitably been some diminishing of the prominence given to the G77.”
Tharoor, who had served as India’s Minister of State of External Affairs under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is well-regarded across the political spectrum. Even the current regime headed by BJP’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to utilise Tharoor’s diplomatic and drafting expertise when it comes to critical issues with a hostile neighbour such as Pakistan.
China, UNIDO and India
How far is India interested in top positions like Director-General of UN organisations, as for example, UNIDO in Vienna?
Tharoor -- who moved out after 29 years at the UN when he came second to Ban Ki-moon in the elections (in 2006) for the Secretary-General – told IDN-INPS that India is certainly interested in UN leadership positions. “India mounts a campaign only when there is buy-in at the political level,” he said. “Understandably, we tend to throw our hat in the ring only when we are reasonably confident of majority support. But, sometimes, New Delhi's indifference can mean India missing out on a position we could have won.”
UNIDO’s current Director-General is China's Li Yong, who was appointed in 2013 with strong backing from the government in Beijing. Much to the dismay of many diplomats in Vienna, Li is said to be recruiting Chinese to senior positions in UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization).
However, at least one official who was asked for his reaction appeared least perturbed by this development. “We do not have to meet the expectations of the West when it comes to China’s role in these bodies,” said a diplomat who recently retired in the rank of secretary from India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He has served in the mission to the UN and as ambassador in a major Asian and western capital.
This veteran of many tricky diplomatic negotiations revealed that it is nothing unusual for India to be encouraged by “interested powers” and their camps to contest against contenders from China and Iran. These two countries are “targeted” for a variety of historical, political, strategic and cultural reasons by the West.
Earlier, in February this year, when Iran’s Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN in Vienna, Reza Najafi, was consensus choice to Chair the G77 for a one-year term, the outcome was attributed to India’s “lack of interest”. A former foreign secretary said the MEA knew that a few PRs to the UN in Vienna wanted the Indian envoy, Renu Pall -- who had presented her credentials in February 2017 -- as the Chair of the G77’s Vienna chapter. However, New Delhi did not appear “enthusiastic”.
A former Permanent Representative of India to the UN said that India held the G77 chair first in 1970. “After that we have not held the chair with a view to encourage stakeholdership and participation of smaller developing countries; as a way of democratising participation.” He pointed out that India is one of the “institutional leaders” of G77 with a decisive leadership role.
“For example, in 2013, India led the consensus in finalising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at Rio+20. Our influence is not always determined by a formal position.” He emphasised that “India is a strong presence. The success of SDGs is India’s contribution.”
A former foreign secretary, who is well acquainted with the matter, said that India has been part of the G77 Experts Group, which works towards finalising a common position on issues before taking it to the others. In his view, New Delhi has desisted from openly pushing for top UN positions because as a “Rising Power”, such positions should come to India without campaigning. “The strength of our presence and the force of our influence should speak; and, should be reflected in India being persuaded to take on leadership roles,” was his view.
Another former Permanent Representative to the UN said that if India is not occupying a few top UN positions today, it is because this is no longer an issue that can be clinched by the MEA. “Ten years ago, the MEA was the diplomatic spearhead. It set the direction and shaped India’s role in the UN and UN organisations. Today, this is done by a variety of nodal ministries ranging from Finance and Commerce to Energy and Environment besides the Prime Minister’s Office.”
These ministries, he said, lack the diplomatic expertise to steer India and Indians to top positions in UN organisations, and they do not wish to concede leadership to MEA in areas they guard as their turf. As a result, said another diplomat, India’s profile does not reflect its real influence, which is much more. This official said that while nodal ministries have the technical expertise and subject competence, they are not skilled in making a diplomatic pitch within a policy framework; and, they are also lacking in the diplomatic capability and finesse for negotiations in international forums. Thus, the diminished importance of the MEA has had its adverse effects.
Another diplomat who had served in major world capitals and the UN – and enjoyed the confidence of successive prime ministers – said that India is very active in G77 as it is in other UN organizations. “But, at times, we want to stay apart. We don’t want to be tied to collective positions on all issues such as, for example, climate change. Similarly, on SDGs, although India led the consensus, there were a few objectives on which India had reservations.”
A powerful presence with a decisive say
There are advantages and disadvantages in being tied to collective position. “In recent years, India has more often had reasons to not be tied to collective positions. This does not mean that India is any way less influential. It is a powerful presence with a decisive say,” he added.
A former ambassador to China, who has also worked with the UN, said that New Delhi does not share the Western view of China and Iran, and does not find it necessary to be pitted against these countries when India’s interests are not affected.
“In fact, more often than not, India has shared interests with Iran and China. China is not a problem for India at all times and in all forums as the West may imagine or would want it to be. There are strategic, political and geopolitical issues where China and India differ but these don’t surface in all forums,” he said.
Another former foreign secretary, who has served as ambassador to the U.S., said that India is interested in positions but not given to campaigning. India wants to avoid too many trials of strength as it can create “credibility problems”. He emphasised that there is no problem in “attaining our objectives”, especially when it comes to India’s special interests.
Tharoor said that India’s special interests obviously vary from agency to agency. But successive governments have tended to have a fairly consistent view about what is "good for India".
An informed observer, who was close to the Prime Minister’s Office until a few years ago, best summed up the situation: “When it comes to the UN and multilateral forums, we are where we want to be. We are not where we were in the 1990s. Today’s India would like to keep its options open in many situations and retain elbow room without the straitjacket of a formal leadership position.”
(The writer is an ndependent commentator on regional and global affairs based in New Delhi.)