India's Tough Road to the Security Council

New Delhi has a strong case, but will the world listen?

Something President Obama said in his speech to India’s parliament in 2010 gladdened lots of Indian hearts.

No, not the line about holding Pakistan accountable for the “terrorist safe havens” on its territory, though that did receive loud applause. India has been hit by major attacks linked to violent Islamist groups in Pakistan, notably on its parliament in December 2001 and on three locations in Mumbai in November 2008. The latter episode left 165 people dead. So, yes, Indian leaders like hearing the United States upbraid Pakistan on terrorism. But the segment of Obama’s speech that created the biggest buzz in India concerned another issue altogether: his pledge to support its bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Indians of just about every political persuasion covet this privilege for several reasons. Let’s start with the most basic one: India is a huge country: its population, now 1.2 billion, is projected to surpass China’s by 2015. Hence the widespread belief in India’s political class that a state representing so many deserves a place at the pinnacle of the parliament of nations, which contains so few.

Beyond the human arithmetic, there’s the longstanding, widely held view among the Indian elite that India is a great power. That idea is now catching on in the rest of the world, not least because India’s economy is the world’s ninth-largest (tenth on some lists), its military among the world’s best. Gone are the snide quips about the “Hindu rate of growth.” True, India’s economy has slowed of late, but it’s still growing at a rapid clip compared to stagnant Europe and glacial America, and the country has some world-class companies and plenty of technological brainpower.

Despite its continuing and serious problems (poverty, illiteracy and inequality), these days India is being touted as a major power—to an extent that wasn’t true in the past. The country is a member of the G-20, so the Security Council seems like a logical follow-on step.

Then there’s the China syndrome. Ever since the drubbing India took at Chinese hands in the 1962 war, there’s been an obsession with China in the Indian strategic community. There’s vigilance and worry, a desire to erase the humiliation, as well as the conviction that China is India’s premier external problem and will remain so. There’s also envy, perhaps even shame, over what China has achieved economically since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping ditched Maoism for thinly veiled capitalism.

There’s talk, some of it silly, about how Pax Sinica could soon supplant Pax Americana. Among the early symbols of China’s rising status was its admission to the Security Council. So what China has, India wants. Statecraft is about more than tangible ends. Countries covet prestige and status as well. India is no exception.

Finally, there’s the legitimacy argument. India is—as Indian leaders love pointing out—the world’s largest democracy. Democracy took root there in 1947 even though the theoretical prerequisites (substantial literacy, a large middle class, the absence of glaring economic inequalities) were missing. Despite Indian democracy’s imperfections—present in every democracy—it has never been in serious danger of destruction.

The closest call was Indira Gandhi’s twenty-one-month interlude of “emergency” rule in 1975-1977. But that aberration ended with voters throwing her out in the 1977 elections. A higher percentage of eligible Indian voters cast ballots (just shy of 60 percent on average between 1952 and 2009) than their American counterparts (maybe that’s setting the bar low) have since the late 1960s. The raucous Indian polity contains more parties and ideological currents than most others.

The Indian army has stayed clear of politics—period. The phenomenon of Ike or Colin Powell (and maybe once Petraeus), born of Americans’ periodic hopes that a military-hero-turned-politician will lead them toward splendid vistas, is unknown in India. When Indian generals retire, they’re expected to play tennis or golf and dote over their grandchildren, a scotch in hand. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, architect of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war and arguably India’s most charismatic military chieftain, retired two years later, settling in a bucolic town in the South India’s lush Nilgiri Hills. That’s the Indian pattern of civil-military relations.

This democratic record is impressive, even more so given India’s lack of the typical preconditions. (And no, it’s not thanks to the British legacy: consider the histories of Pakistan, Nigeria, Burma and Zimbabwe, to name but a few of Her Majesty’s former domains). Call this India’s legitimacy argument for a Security Council seat.

So this explains India’s yearning for the Security Council. You’ll get other arguments in New Delhi—better global governance and so on. But it’s really about stuff that’s a lot less concrete: pride, recognition and entitlement.

Obama won big points in India with his promise. Ironically, this was in part because his administration hasn’t cultivated the country as a strategic partner with anywhere near the seriousness that George W. Bush’s did. Hence Indians appreciated the president’s pledge all the more. But it’s not in Obama’s power to realize India’s UN dream.

Admitting more states as permanent members of the Security Council requires a two-thirds affirmative vote in the General Assembly and a sign-off by the Council’s five current permanent members. That’s where things get sticky. China isn’t eager to have India in this exclusive club and can gum up the procedural machinery in various ways short of outright opposition.