Print This Post
26 September 2011, Gateway House

Reasserting India’s independence

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech at the UN General Assembly has put Indian perceptions on the record and clearly outlined India’s independent foreign policy. India came out unequivocally in support of the Palestinian struggle & reiterated its traditional stance of respecting countries’ sovereignty.

post image

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the annual gathering at the United Nations this weekend to strike a different pose, one more confrontational than conciliatory, to clearly differentiate the Indian world view on the various unfolding international crises.

He gave a critique of globalization, questioned the efficacy of the Bretton Woods institutions and told western powers about the perils of military interventions – a direct reference to the NATO operations in Libya and a warning not to go the same route in Syria. He used strong words to assert that India was extremely uncomfortable with the growing tendency to interpret UN resolutions in favour of military intervention. The speech was reminiscent of the old days, almost Indira Gandhi-esque in its tone.

“Societies cannot be reordered from outside through military force. People in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future,” Singh told the General Assembly in his September 24 address. “The international community has a role to play in assisting in the processes of transition and institution-building, but the idea that prescriptions have to be imposed from outside is fraught with danger.” The rule of law is “as important in international affairs as it is within countries,” he stressed.

Fighting words from a prime minister generally seen as a man of gentle demeanor. But there are good reasons for his sudden tonal change. India, currently a non-permanent member in the UN Security Council, had abstained on the Libyan resolution but not voted against it in a positive gesture to the western allies. However, subsequent developments and the supply of weapons to the Libyan rebels was seen by India as going beyond the limits of what the UN resolution had authorized. There is disquiet about claims of western ambassadors about the current Libyan situation – New Delhi simply does not believe half the reports they have submitted about the ground realities.

The prime minister’s speech has put Indian perceptions on the record. Brazil and South Africa, also non-permanent Council members, share India’s discomfort about NATO; the trio has been resisting the tendency to see the Syrian situation through the same western lens. India sees the idea of the “Right to Protect” or R2P as fraught with danger. The R2P principles focus on halting genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; the principles derive their power from the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility, not a privilege. It still is only a norm, not a law, but a significant body of opinion is coalescing behind it among western opinion makers. India would still count itself in the old, traditional camp of respecting sovereignty above most other compulsions bar some.

In another clear statement, India came out unequivocally in support of the Palestinian struggle at this 66th gathering of the international community, where Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application to be recognized as a state. Israel, the United States and some key European countries are opposed to the move and are likely to block it with the ultimate weapon – the veto. Manmohan Singh did not waver from India’s traditional support for Palestine, despite Israel being India’s largest defence equipment supplier and despite improving bi-lateral relations with that nation. Singh even named East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Singh then took on globalization and the mythology associated with it. He was front and centre in his criticism – somewhat surprisingly – when he said the “benefits” can no longer be taken for granted. He made it clear that he was no fan of a free market run wild on the wings of deregulation. “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,” he said in his speech. The financial crisis of 2008 in many respects has deepened, he averred, and while the western world is resorting to protectionism, emerging economies are being asked to carry more than their fair share of the burden.

It seemed like Singh was using the global audience to register a variety of complaints, and sending signals that the kind of market openings the west seeks in India are unlikely to be implemented any time soon. The U.S. has been pushing India to open its retail, banking and insurance sectors to a greater degree, something that Indian politicians say can be socially explosive because it will throw millions of small businesses out of work.

Terrorism was a major theme for Singh; here his criticism focused on the west (read, the United States) having an uneven policy. “There cannot be selective approaches in dealing with terrorist groups or the infrastructure of terrorism. Terrorism has to be fought on all fronts,” he said in a clear reference to Washington’s tendency to largely ignore Pakistan-supported groups that operate against India while focusing on Al-Qaeda and its affiliates which target the U.S. and other western nations.

Singh’s speech will not go unnoticed by Washington and its allies, especially when discussions begin on the expansion of the UN Security Council. India is seeking permanent membership in an expanded Council to “reflect contemporary reality” and enhance its credibility and effectiveness in dealing with global issues. “Early reform of the Security Council must be pursued with renewed vigor and urgently enacted,” Singh exhorted. Even though the U.S. came out in support for India’s candidacy during President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi last November, discussions on reform are proceeding slowly, if at all. There is no urgency felt among the five permanent members (China, the U.S., Britain, France and Russia) to expand their club any time soon.

If there was a perception that the prime minister was pursuing U.S.-friendly policies during his first term, he spoke from a different, if an old song book, in an effort to make clear that India had, unmistakably, an independent foreign policy.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2011 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,