India first staked a claim for UNSC permanent membership almost 50 years after Independence: Here’s how it happened

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Although India made its United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent seat ambition abundantly clear since Independence, it did not culminate into a formal campaign until 1994.

Indian diplomats usually credit Brajesh Mishra, India’s permanent representative between 1979 and 1981, who later served as India’s first National Security Advisor under the Vajpayee administration, for initiating the push for equitable representation in the Security Council. Brajesh Mishra, as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, galvanised 10 non-aligned countries to move a joint resolution in the General Assembly (A/34/246) on 14 November 1979 that demanded equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Council. Despite ground-breaking efforts, the text of Mishra’s resolution demanded enlargement of the Council on the grounds of increased UN membership. The text did not press for the expansion of permanent members. However, the banal text’s dormant existence continued on the Assembly’s agenda until it resurfaced in 1992 in a newer form on the eve of the UN’s golden jubilee.

In 1992, India introduced a new resolution (A/RES/47/62) that sought proposals from member states on the expansion of the Council, based on which an Open-ended Working Group under the President of the General Assembly was formed in the subsequent year (A/RES/48/26). On the Indian side, who re-initiated this process remains a mystery. In his memoirs, TP Sreenivasan, then Deputy Permanent Representative, claims to have suggested to his boss Chinmaya Gharekhan, then India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, that he seek member states’ opinion (which Amb Gharekhan refused to corroborate in personal correspondence).

Both Gharekhan and JN Dixit, then foreign secretary, are silent about who initiated the proposals in their own recollections. Even if the 1992-93 resolutions elicited opinions and formed working groups, the resolution texts do not mention expansion in the permanent category. Only from 1995 onwards, in the proceedings of the working group, was the possibility of adding permanent members entertained officially for the first time (cf. A/49/965).

Some scholars attribute the inception of India’s quest to Prime Minister Rao’s speech at a Security Council summit organised by British prime minister John Major in January 1992. However, if one closely examines the speech, Rao’s emphasis is still tied to expanding membership, similar to the 1979 Brajesh Mishra resolution, without making a clear call for India’s permanent representation. Rao stated, ‘as the composition of the General Assembly has trebled since its inception, the size of the Security Council cannot remain constant any longer’.

The MEA’s Foreign Affairs Records of the subsequent year 1993 show that Indian ministers and diplomats had started canvassing for an expanded permanent membership and pitching New Delhi’s case in their bilateral interactions. The same year, at the 48th General Assembly, India’s junior foreign minister, Dinesh Singh, indirectly claimed for India’s inclusion by emphasising criteria for permanent members.

It was only in 1994 that India’s then Commerce Minister and head of UNGA delegation, Pranab Mukherjee, made an explicit case for India’s permanent membership. Speaking at the 49th General Assembly on 3 October 1994, Mukherjee stated, ‘on the basis of any criteria — population, size of economy, contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security and to peace-keeping or future potential — India deserves to be a permanent member of the Security Council’.

Subsequently, when asked in the Lok Sabha, whether India has formally staked a claim for permanent membership, another junior minister, RL Bhatia, referred to Pranab Mukherjee’s statement, making apparent that the UNGA speech was the formal proposition from the Indian government’s perspective. In the same session of Parliament, a resolution affirming the need for UN Security Council reform was passed. Although Mukherjee got this historic opportunity of formally inaugurating India’s UNSC quest, being the Commerce minister, he gave the credit to prime minister Rao.

The above excerpt is from a chapter ‘India and the United States: Friends Elsewhere, Foes at the United Nations’ by Chirayu Thakkar in an edited volume Global India: The Pursuit of Influence and Status. In-text citations are removed for accessibility.

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India first staked a claim for UNSC permanent membership almost 50 years after Independence: Here’s how it happened
India first staked a claim for UNSC permanent membership almost 50 years after Independence: Here’s how it happened
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