For all the hype, speeches at the United Nations General Assembly aren’t usually epoch-making: it’s hard, after all, to hunt for pearls in the millions of words put together by the speech-writers of 192 world leaders. Yet, looking back, they give a fascinating glimpse into India’s changing sense of itself on the world stage.
Indira Gandhi, September 1983: India as Third-World Spokesperson
Indira Gandhi spoke at the UNGA against the backdrop of the increasingly bloody insurgency in Punjab, which would soon claim her life, and an economy that had begun to splutter and stall. Facing increasing criticism at home on corruption, as well as her failure to deliver on developmental promises, Indira Gandhi cast herself as a spokesperson for the world’s have-nots
Economy: In this age of instant globe-encircling information technology, the media dazzle eyes and fill ears with images and reports of affluence. Even the modest expectations of our peoples are far beyond our present means. Besides, we are hard put to preserve our independence because of the many economic, political and military pressures…. The present world economic order is based on domination and inequality.
Global issues: A golden opportunity exists for Israel to obtain true peace, transforming her borders with the Arabs into centers of attraction, interaction and fruitful exchanges. These borders should no longer become marked by trenches, barbed wire and barricades…. This relentless search for ever-increasingly barbaric weapons systems is undertaken in the name of security. India and other nonaligned countries are convinced that only general and complete disarmament can provide real and enduring security.
Rajiv Gandhi, June 9, 1988: India as Global Leader
Rajiv Gandhi spoke against the backdrop of Operation Brasstacks, a military exercise along India’s border with Pakistan that almost spiralled into war. India’s exercises, the largest since the Second World War, were read by Pakistan’s military as a veiled plan for a massive armoured thrust that would cut their country in two. Pakistan responded by threatening counter-strikes—and the use of nuclear weapons. Though opinions are divided on whether Pakistan in fact had a deliverable nuclear weapon at this time, we know from memoirs that Rajiv Gandhi took the threat very seriously—making this the subcontinent’s first nuclear crisis.
Nuclear weapons: … we propose that all nuclear weapons be leached of legitimacy by negotiating an International convention which outlaws the threat or use of such weapons. Such a convention will reinforce the process of nuclear disarmament…. there should be a binding commitment by all nations to eliminating nuclear weapons in stages, by the year 2010 at the latest.
A new world order: The technological revolutions of our century have created unparalleled wealth. They have endowed the fortunate with high levels of mass consumption and widespread social welfare. In fact, there is plenty for everyone, provided distribution is made more equitable. Yet, the possibility of fulfilling the basic needs of nutrition and shelter, education and health remains beyond the reach of vast millions of people in the developing world because resources which could give fulfillment in life are pre-empted for death.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, September 13, 2002: The Challenge of Terror
Atal Behari Vajpayee’s UNGA address is celebrated for being the first one delivered in Hindi. There are, arguably, more substantial issues it should be remembered for. It saw a drastic change in India’s language on development issues, and addressed a world transformed by the events of 9/11. Prime Minister Vajpayee spoke against the context of the military crisis of 2001-2001, and the Kargil war—both conflicts that could have escalated into nuclear flashpoints. For the first time, an Indian Prime Minister took on Pakistan’s use of terror in the United Nations. He said he would negotiate on Kashmir when terrorism stopped—and, interestingly, levels of violence fell to almost zero in a year-on-year decline which began after the 2001-2002 crisis.
On Pakistan: Yesterday, the President of Pakistan [General Pervez Musharraf] chose this august assembly to make a public admission for the first time that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir. After claiming that there is an indigenous struggle in Kashmir, he has offered to encourage a general cessation of violence within Kashmir, in return for “reciprocal obligations and restraints”. We totally refuse to let terrorism become a tool of blackmail. Just as the world did not negotiate with Al-Qaida or the Taliban, we shall not negotiate with terrorism.
When the cross-border terrorism stops – or when we eradicate it – we can have a dialogue with Pakistan on the other issues between us.
Challenge of poverty: Poverty alleviation requires resources on a far greater scale than now available. Globalization itself constrains developing country governments in raising public resources for poverty alleviation. The promise of the climate change and biodiversity treaties to raise significant resources for investment and technology transfer is yet unrealised. The resources of multilateral and bilateral development agencies are limited by the failure of industrialised countries to enhance development budgets….
Developing countries need to coordinate their positions in international negotiations to promote the adoption of regimes, which would help poverty alleviation. The India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum, which was established earlier this year, is an effort in this direction.
Manmohan Singh, September 24, 2011: The Global Economic Meltdown
Manmohan Singh had been hailed as a Prophet of Progress—the man who dragged India out of decades of slow growth into a boom unprecedented in its history. In 2011, he was applauded for having protected India from the consequences of the global financial crisis, and his advice was being sought at world fora. Inside of months, though, the global fever hit India as well—and, beset by multiple corruption scandals and policy paralysis, the Prime Minister laid the foundations for the Congress party’s worst-ever electoral debacle.
World financial crisis: Till a few years ago the world had taken for granted the benefits of globalization and global interdependence. Today we are being called upon to cope with the negative dimensions of those very phenomena. Economic, social and political events in different parts of the world have coalesced together and their adverse impact is now being felt across countries and continents.
The world economy is in trouble. The shoots of recovery which were visible after the economic and financial crisis of 2008 have yet to blossom. In many respects the crisis has deepened even further. The traditional engines of the global economy such as the United States, Europe and Japan, which are also the sources of global economic and financial stability, are faced with continued economic slowdown. Recessionary trends in these countries are affecting confidence in world financial and capital markets.