India's Bid for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council: The Power of Distinction
Part of the Department of International Development and Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme's Contemporary South Asia Seminar Series, funded by a grant from the Faculty of Oriental Studies.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, how can we understand India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? This is a question that bears upon three issues of broader significance: India’s relationship to the institution of the great powers, as legalised within the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; India’s self-positioning in relation to a broadly-conceived developing country constituency; and self-conceptions of India’s role and status in world politics. These three key strands of India’s foreign policy thinking and action stand as potential sites of recent and profound change: it is only since the early 1990s that New Delhi has sought formal accession to the small club of powerful states that hold permanent seats on the Council. Moreover, India’s bid appears to stand in contrast with a longer history of Indian aversion to great power politics, of solidarity with developing states, and of claims to status based on a principled defence of the weaker states in international society.
While several analyses of India’s aspirations to join the Council as a permanent member conclude that it is India’s increasing material capability that has led its leaders to stake a claim on a coveted role at the high table of international politics, this paper questions such accounts, as well as accounts that see in India’s bid a fundamental shift in Indian values. Our reading of India’s engagement in the Security Council reform process—from the 1990s until the present date—suggests that for the Indian foreign policy establishment, India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UNSC is not aimed at securing recognition of its new status as a rising power. Instead, it is viewed as a means to achieve other, longer-standing goals that derive from the specificities of India’s international identity and Indian self-conceptions of an appropriate global role.