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Why India is still far away from permanent UNSC membership?

In this new structure, if India has to stake a claim to permanent membership, it has to singlemindedly focus on economic growth, with concomitant military might.

September 28, 2015 / 03:25 PM IST

R Jagannathan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to make a strong pitch for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), but he should know that at the global level, it is real power that matters. His pitch is fine, but he will reach his goal only by demonstrating real power. And in the 21st century, power boils down essentially to economic power. Mere population size is not good enough to ensure a seat at the high table (excluding powerless talk shops like the G-20 or G-8).

So here’s my prediction: India will get its permanent seat on the UNSC somewhere between 2020 and 2025 — the earlier date if we grow at rates above 8 percent on an average, and the latter date if we grow slower (which seems likely). So if Modi were to get a second term in 2019, he might well be there to celebrate India’s final arrival at the global power table.

It is, of course, true that the current permanent membership of the UNSC — the US, Russia, France, UK and China — represents the power structure as it existed at the end of the Second World War. In fact, power was actually divided up based on which side you were on, and not necessarily economic power. The Permanent Five of the UNSC were the victors in the war, and they initially included the puny Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China and excluded the Communist-overrun mainland China which had a superior claim to representing the nation. The defeated nations were specifically excluded from this power structure. India, then an un-free country, was excluded because Britain was its then ruler.

One myth about Jawaharlal Nehru throwing away India’s chance for a permanent seat needs to understood in its full nuance (read this paper here). It is being argued that Nehru declined the US’s offer to replace China with India on the UNSC in 1950, but the rejection was not entirely without reason. While Nehru clearly was a poor student of realpolitik — as was later demonstrated in how he lost the China War of 1962 — his policy should also be seen as an extension of his efforts to stay equidistant from the two superpowers in the emerging Cold War. Moreover, there was also his genuine belief that replacing China in the UNSC would have made it a permanent enemy of India.

That Nehru was wrong on both counts stands proven today by the continued underlying hostility of China towards Indian interests, but that would be hindsight. It would, however, not be fair to presume that he willingly compromised India’s interests on the altar of pure morality. The truth is India in the 1950s got feelers from both the US, and the then USSR for permanent membership of the UNSC, but we were simply not powerful enough to deserve the seat on the basis of genuine military or economic power. We had only moral clout, and it was not enough.

That is changing now, but not fast enough. In a post-Cold War world, which is rapidly slipping again into local hot wars, including proxy wars that were characteristic of the Cold War period, the power balance is changing again with China replacing Russia as the pole opposite the US.

In this new structure, if India has to stake a claim to permanent membership, it has to singlemindedly focus on economic growth, with concomitant military might.

As things stand today, India is a middling power economically, with a national GDP of around USD 2 trillion. All the current permanent members of the UNSC, barring Russia, are bigger than India economically, with the US at USD 17.4 trillion, China at USD10.3 trillion, the UK at USD 2.9 trillion, and France at USD 2.8 trillion (all figures from the World Bank for 2014). After the breakup of the USSR, the rump Russian Federation has fallen below India at USD 1.8 trillion. It is the only one deserving of replacement right now, but that won’t happen for Russia is a nuclear power.

On the other hand, three big global players — Germany, Japan and Brazil — with economies bigger than India’s at USD3.8 trillion, USD4.6 trillion, and USD2.3 trillion respectively, have an even better claim than India to be permanent members. Logically, Germany and Japan should have been in the UNSC even earlier, but they were the defeated powers in World War II. Later, when Germany and Japan rose again as peaceful nations, China’s opposition to Japan stymied their entry. India’s entry now will face a similar Chinese blackball as long as India remains an emerging power, struggling with a weak currency and a USD 2 trillion economy.

The unstated threshold for entry will thus be USD 4 to 5 trillion. Getting there will take India around 10 years at the current 7 to 8 percent potential annual growth rate, which is what looks feasible at this point of time, given internal quarrels over economic reforms. India will become a USD 3 trillion economy in five years, and a USD 4 to 4.5 trillion economy in 10. That means the world will be unable to deny an entry to us somewhere between 2020 and 2025.

The reason for this is simple: While it is technically possible for India’s enemies to keep us out now and even in the future (any one of the Permanent Five can keep us out by wielding the veto), when we are a USD 4-5 trillion economy, Germany and Japan are USD 5-6 trillion and Brazil around USD 3.5-4 trillion, the group can force a decision as it will collectively be bigger than the US or China right now in terms of economic clout. A USD 18-20 trillion bloc will get its way.

Just as a USD10 trillion Chinese economy can create its own global lending bank to rival the World Bank, as a USD4-5 trillion economy, India along with today’s midi powers will be in a position to demand its rights or threaten to create its own rival power structure. This is why China would like to slow us down by constantly getting Pakistan to trip us up. and Pakistani terrorism aimed at India has China's tacit support for the same reason.


Funny as this may sound, the fact is India’s entry into the UNSC depends on overturning the results of the Second World War. It is only when the former Axis powers — Germany and Japan — grow to rival the current Big Two of the UNSC in terms of economic power that India can get permanent membership.

Netaji may have backed the wrong horses in the last global war, but history has a weird way of proving him right.

The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group.

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