The external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, led the Indian delegation to the High-Level Segment of this year’s annual session of the United Nations General Assembly — its 78th. The HLS attracts world leaders who traditionally make statements in the General Debate. These are regarded as authoritative articulations of their countries’ domestic and foreign policies, achievements and aspirations. Since assuming office in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been personally present at the HLS thrice and, in 2020, he delivered India’s statement virtually. The late Sushma Swaraj, one of India’s ablest external affairs ministers, headed the Indian delegation to the HLS on four occasions. Both Modi and Swaraj made their UNGA addresses in Hindi.
When he spoke at the UNGA in 2022 as well as this year, Jaishankar did so in English. While Modi and Swaraj referred to India as Bharat — this was the correct way of naming the country as they were speaking in Hindi — the English language interpreters named the country India. This is because internationally the country’s name is India. Jaishankar referred to the country as India in his statement but in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s new penchant for calling it Bharat even in English, Jaishankar could not resist beginning his statement by saying, “Namaste from Bharat” (Contrast this with Swaraj’s simple “namaste”) and concluding his address with the words, “India that is Bharat”. To avoid these artificial, contrived and awkward formulations, it would be preferable if Jaishankar learns to deliver the UNGA statements in Hindi if he wishes to show that he is truly part of the present ‘grounded and authentic’ leadership, which, he has asserted, is taking India to a glorious future.
In his address, Jaishankar avoided direct references to the current geopolitical controversies, including the Ukraine war. He enunciated basic, if idealistic, principles such as the need for global equity and justice. He also focused on the present East-West divide and the large North-South gap. He emphasised that the world must not “countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence. Similarly, respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs cannot be exercises in cherry picking.” However, from his earlier avatar as a hard-headed, erudite and top diplomat, Jaishankar would know that it is one matter to declaim and quite another to pursue interests.
Indeed, Jaishankar acknowledged “… all nations pursue their national interests”; this would naturally include India. However, from here, he proceeded to enunciate what can only be called a doctrine of Indian exceptionalism. This is borne out by his comments that India did not consider the pursuit of its interests as “being in contradiction with global good.” “When we aspire to be a leading power,” stated Jaishankar, “[it] is not for self-aggrandizement but to take on greater responsibility and make more contributions. The goals that we have set for ourselves will make us different from all those whose rise preceded ours.” All this is fine as sentiment but as practitioners of international relations know it is in the very nature of a nation-state to give preference to its own interests over that of others. It is impossible to walk the talk when national economic and other interests require to be protected. It is, therefore, dangerous to enunciate a doctrine of exceptionalism for it would inevitably open doors to charges of hypocrisy and posturing in the future. In fact, during a speech at an event organised in New York during his visit, Jaishankar, while speaking of “economically dominant” nations, said, “They will all mouth the right things, but the reality is still today, it’s a world with very much double standards.” Jaishankar should be aware that India’s smaller and ‘friendly’ neighbours may make similar remarks about India.
All through its G20 presidency, India has sought to pursue this doctrine of exceptionalism. This can be witnessed in its projection of giving voice to the needs and the demands of fair treatment for the Global South. Jaishankar reiterated this point in his address. He said India was a ‘vishwa mitra’ (friend of the world) and illustrated this point by referring to Indian assistance to needy countries in their times of crisis. He went further to mention that “rule makers do not subjugate rule takers.” He was obviously signalling to Global South states that India, unlike other major powers, will take care of their interests even as its stature rises in global affairs.
The fact is that right from Independence, India sought to bring about a more equitable global order. It did so by pressing for decolonisation in the decades of the 1950s and the 1960s and by its willingness to share its experience and expertise with fellow developing countries. It did so through its programme of technical and economic cooperation. It also signalled its commitment to autonomous action by refusing to accept discriminatory treaties and agreements despite pressure from the great powers, a prime example being the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Hence, what Jaishankar articulated is a continuity in India’s foreign policy. What has changed now is the desire to flaunt Indian assistance involvement by using terms like ‘vishwa mitra’. Indeed, this writer, as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2002 to early 2005, always downplayed India’s help because he felt it was important to uphold the pride of the Afghans. That approach was appreciated.
Jaishankar did well to not refer to Pakistan at all despite the condemnation of India by Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, in his UNGA address. Pakistan always raises the Jammu and Kashmir issue and hardly any country pays any attention to it. It was a sign of mature diplomacy on Jaishankar’s part to ignore Kakar completely. It was adequate that a junior Indian diplomat responded to Kakar’s charges through India exercising its right of reply. It is also noteworthy that unlike in the past, Kakar’s comments on India were hardly covered in the Indian media. That shows that Pakistan is not the uppermost issue in the public mind. But that can change with a major terrorist attack.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer