India, along with other G4 nations – Brazil, Germany, and Japan – has offered to forgo veto power initially as a bargaining chip to get the reform of the United Nations Security Council process moving.

“The issue of veto is important, but we should not allow it to have a veto over the process of Council reform itself,” India’s Permanent Representative at the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, suggested recently. While new permanent members would, in principle, have veto powers that the current five members have, he said, “they shall not exercise the veto until a decision on the matter has been taken during a review”.

Clearly this is a well-meaning move to get the reform process going but in light of the rapidly evolving geopolitical realities, it is unlikely to go anywhere. While the Modi government has made a number of departures in Indian foreign policy since coming to office, on the issue of UN Security council reform, it has largely followed its predecessors.

From the United Progressive Alliance to the National Democratic Alliance, Indian political elites remain obsessed with the UN. Even as the UN’s failures have become self-evident over the years, India has continued to view it as an almost indispensable actor in global politics that needs substantial Indian diplomatic investment.

While this fascination with a moribund institution may not have had any cost in the past when India was on the periphery of global politics, a rising India of today cannot afford to cling on to that same old worldview. Yet India continues to expend its precious diplomatic capital on pursuing the permanent membership of the Security Council.

Underwhelming experiences

India’s experience with the UN has historically been underwhelming, to put it mildly. Indian national interests have suffered whenever the nation has looked to the UN for support. As the Nehruvian idealism has gradually been replaced by a more confident assertion of Indian national interests, it is time for India to make a more forceful dissociation from the perfunctory modalities of the UN.

Too much of a UN-fixation is not good for the health of any nation, much less for a rising power like India. Indian interests today are global and ever-expanding. And the Indian government should have the self-confidence to declare that these interests will be protected and enhanced, irrespective of the priorities of other external actors.

The Indian government is the only legitimate constitutional authority to decide when and how to use its instruments of power. And by and large there is only one criterion that it should use: preservation of vital Indian interests.

The UN is an international organisation that was established in the aftermath of the Second World War and so reflects the distribution of power of that era. The Security Council, where the real power lies, has five permanent members with veto powers who use the organisation to further their own interests. The General Assembly for all its pretensions remains a mere talking shop. The state of affairs in the UN is so pathetic that apart from some of its technical bodies, the rest of the organisation is a farce. The UN Human Rights Council has had members like Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Saudi Arabia, not exactly known for their stellar human rights credentials. No wonder Vaclav Havel called it “A Table for Tyrants”.

Easy way out

Why should India take such an organisation seriously and make it “a platform for establishing India’s place in the world” as Shashi Tharoor once suggested? More importantly why should it give the UN veto over its vital national interests?

The most important issue in this context involves decisions on where and when to deploy its military assets. So far Indian policy-makers have been playing safe by making foreign deployments of Indian military contingent on being part of a UN mission. This was perhaps tenable when Indian interests were limited in scope. Today such a policy does not hold water and more significantly it gives the government a shield from allegations of abdication of its primary responsibility of protecting Indian interests.

When India finally decided to send its naval warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, one had hoped that Indian political and military leadership will finally be forced to evolve a coherent policy towards the use of force in securing Indian economic and strategic interests. But it continues to remain unclear under what conditions India would be willing to use force in defending its interests.

This question needs an immediate answer. The civilian and military leaderships have let the nation down by not articulating a vision for the use of Indian military assets. If some suggestions have been made, they verge on being facile. For example, ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, then Indian Army Chief had suggested that “India takes part only in UN approved/sanctioned military operations and the UN has not mandated this action in Afghanistan so there is no question of India participating in it.”

Time to get real

Indian leadership continues to give the impression that the role it sees for India in global security is not shaped by its own assessment of its interests and values but by the judgements of global institutions like the UN. No major power takes UN Peacekeeping Operations seriously. Yet India continues to be the largest contributors to these peacekeeping contingents, sending nearly 1,80,000 peacekeepers to 44 missions over the years.

Indian forces working for the UN have suffered more casualties than any other nation. Indian policy-makers argue that this is being done not for any strategic gain but in the service of global ideals – “strengthening the world-body, and international peace and security”. Why should global peace and security be a priority for Indian government, a government that has continued to fail miserably in establishing domestic order and internal security?

There was always a calculation that being a leader in UN Peacekeeping would help India in its drive towards the permanent membership of the Security Council. But what has India achieved in reality? Despite its involvement in numerous peacekeeping operations in Africa for decades, the African states refused to support India’s candidature.

Given China’s growing economic and military hold over Africa, the states in the region were merely pursuing their own interests. India’s candidature for the Permanent Member of the Security Council will be taken seriously only when India becomes an economic and military power of global reckoning, able to protect and enhance its interests unilaterally.

Until then, it’s not readily evident why India would want to become a second tier permanent member of the UN Security Council without any veto power.

Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.