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A leadership moment

At BRICS summit, a chance for India to start on a path that leads to the UNSC.

For India, the new bank could be a great opportunity to get long-term capital for its huge infrastructure needs. Source: Reuters For India, the new bank could be a great opportunity to get long-term capital for its huge infrastructure needs. Source: Reuters

At BRICS summit, a chance for India to start on a path that leads to the UNSC.

Next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend his first BRICS summit. This is a historic opportunity to position India in a changing global order. India today punches below its weight on global issues. It is a member of the G-20 but plays a marginal role in guiding global discussions. A previous BJP government put India into the nuclear club, and this government could take us all the way to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The BRICS summit is an opportunity to start down that path.

The prime minister made a bold start by inviting all SAARC leaders to his inauguration. With festering problems in its own neighbourhood, India is no doubt distracted locally and thereby hobbled in projecting its power more broadly in global affairs. With a better functioning SAARC, India can speak on global issues with a stronger sub-regional backing.

India’s most clearly stated international goal is to have a seat on the UNSC. On the basis of its size as one-sixth of humanity and the third largest economy (PPP adjusted), its claim cannot be challenged. Yet, progress on this issue has been glacial. India today has very few senior positions at the UN. No Indian heads a single UN organisation. China, besides having a permanent UNSC seat, heads three UN organisations. Brazil has strong interests in trade and agriculture and now heads the FAO and WTO, positions it won with greater strategic clarity and concerted effort.

Getting a permanent UNSC seat will also require building coalitions with other key aspirants, such as Brazil and South Africa, and getting the support of China and Russia, which are permanent members. The BRICS summit is a chance to open the dialogue.

The most immediate concrete idea for discussion will be the new BRICS bank, which will rival existing multilateral banks with call-in capital of $50 billion. This is an important signal but will eventually require a bigger capital base,  which could come from increasing the contributions of the existing members to at least $100 billion or bringing in other large G-20 developing countries as contributors. For India, which has maxed out its borrowing capacity at the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, the new bank could be a great opportunity to get long-term capital for its huge infrastructure needs.

Germany and Japan are two other key aspirants to the UNSC with whom India can and must ally. The big powers must be made to realise that global peace will require India’s active participation, a position that can only be reached when India begins to play a more strategic role, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in helping broker positive solutions.

India must also show leadership in ideas. India accepted the UN’s Millenium Development Goals for 2015 with some reluctance. In the run-up to the post-2015 discussions, India again tends to make unnecessary arguments as a sanctimonious champion of the poor by arguing that it stands for poverty eradication but against objectives it characterises are Western impositions.

The new government, which won the election on a promise of better governance, must put an end to such positions. We know that better governance is the route to faster growth, job creation and poverty eradication. We know that only a fraction of development money reaches the poor. So why not contribute to  a practical way forward in building a global consensus on development and better governance?

India will also increase its chances for a permanent UNSC seat if it plays a more constructive and active role in the G-20. India had long argued that the G-7 is no longer a legitimate body. But having arrived at the high table at the G-20, it seems India is just happy to be there. It has not pushed any new initiatives, or displayed the kind of constructive role that would help its UNSC candidacy.

As the prime minister meets BRICS leaders next week, and then prepares for a series of meetings at the UN in September and the G-20 in Australia in November, he might wish to provide strategic leadership to how India approaches these vital issues. He can bring India back into active leadership positions on global issues and take us to a permanent seat on the UNSC. Now, that would be a landmark achievement. But let us start on that journey by founding the BRICS bank.

The writer, a former UN assistant secretary general, is director general, Independent Evaluation Office.
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