Concerns over how Indian proposals for United Nations Security Council reforms were being attacked in New York

United States diplomats in New Delhi apparently watched with nervousness as their colleagues in New York attacked Indian proposals for UN Security Council reforms days ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington in July 2005. Charge d'Affaires Robert Blake, in a strongly-worded cable, called it a “public relations train wreck.” He contrasted it with how “astutely” China had handled the issue.

The proposals calling for an expansion of the Security Council were part of a joint Framework Resolution tabled by the G4 countries — India, Germany, Japan and Brazil — in the General Assembly on July 12.

In the cable dated July 14, 2005 (36569: confidential), Mr. Blake wrote that the U.S. move had been “badly received in India but the GOI is doing damage control to preserve the positive atmospherics of the PM's July 18-20 Washington visit, including working to ensure the resolution will not come up for a vote while the PM is in Washington.”

The cable, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, took potshots at the Indian media and political observers for focussing “only'' on the U.S. position while “neglecting all other comments made during the course of the General Assembly debate'' on the resolution.

“Political observers from across the spectrum,” the cable said, “have commented on how astutely the Chinese have managed the gullible Indian public on the UNSC question: despite Beijing's determined but private opposition to the G-4 efforts, the public in India only remembers [Chinese Prime Minister] Wen Jiabao's nod to Indian membership during his April visit, and the Chinese Ambassador's subsequent reaffirmation of Chinese support…In contrast, most Indians see the US position as simply opposed to UNSC expansion and, by extension, Indian aspirations. The aftermath of our UN statement could have been a public relations train wreck given its proximity to the PM's departure, but MEA has stepped in to minimize the effect on the overall message from the visit.”

The Indian government, Mr. Blake noted, was “engaged in a delicate balancing act over how much it can manage down expectations of US support for the UNSC seat during the PM's Washington trip without publicly appearing to betray its long campaign.”

India's frustration

Other cables on the subject show India's frustration at American foot-dragging. One senior Ministry of External Affairs official likened it to the uncertainty that comes with not knowing whether the other side would ever say ‘yes' to a “marriage proposal.”

The exchange, which was passed off as a “quip,” is reported in a cable (34940: confidential), sent by U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi David Mulford on June 17, 2005 after a meeting between the Embassy's Political Officer and Ministry of External Affairs Deputy Secretary (UN Political) Pankaj Sharma.

Mr. Mulford wrote that Mr. Sharma “quickly turned the subject to G-4 UNSC reform proposals, pointing out that the issue ‘has been debated for twelve years now'.'' And he “…quipped that India is waiting as if it had made a marriage proposal: the wait is less of a concern ‘as long as we get the right answer'.”

On another occasion, India's Permanent Representative to the UN Nirupam Sen asked his U.S. counterpart Susan Rice why “the heirs of Gandhi” were being denied a place on the top table.

Mr. Sen's rhetorical poser to Ms. Rice is recorded in a cable dated February 4, 2009 (190474: confidential), sent from the U.S. Mission at the UN.

Ms. Rice, who had just taken up the post, told Mr. Sen (both officials have since retired) that the U.S. was “eager to sustain and accelerate recent progress in the U.S.-India bilateral relationship” and wished to enhance cooperation in multilateral fora, especially the UN.

Mr. Sen, according to the cable, “emphasized India's focus on Security Council reform, and asked: ‘If the heirs of Stalin and Mao have a seat on the Security Council, why not the heirs of Gandhi?'”

It may not have been the most persuasive argument in support of India's claim to a permanent seat on the Security Council, but it clearly lightened the mood.

Ms. Rice responded that America was “open to Security Council reform and recognizes that the Security Council must change its post-World War II architecture, provided that the changes do not diminish its effectiveness and efficiency.”

Mr. Sen insisted that it was important for member-states to know that the U.S. was “open and benevolent” to reform, although it was “not absolutely necessary for the U.S. to weigh in on current negotiations beyond that basic message.”

Mr. Sen returned to the theme during a debate in the General Assembly a few months later. There he argued that those aspiring for a permanent seat on the Security Council were more deserving than some of the current permanent members. The remarks touched off a diplomatic row, and the Americans told India such an observation was “in conflict” with New Delhi's official position.

A cable dated November 18, 2005 (45547: confidential) from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi reported that Senior Advisor on UN Reform Shirin Tahir-Kheli raised the issue with MEA Joint Secretary (Americas) S. Jaishankar, and the Prime Minister's media adviser Sanjaya Baru.

“In both meetings,'' the cable said, “our interlocutors underlined that PermRep Nirupam Sen's remarks are in conflict with the GOI's expressed position on UNSC reform…Ambassador Tahir-Kheli noted that even if aimed at a ‘non-aligned' audience, such comments ripple more widely and raise concerns about the fruits of the ‘transformed' US-India relationship…Both Jaishankar and Baru took the point on board and promised to raise it with senior level officials. Baru specifically said he would brief the Prime Minister and was ‘not surprised' at Sen's comments, stating he is a ‘creature of the 1970s'.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)