The U.N. Security Council needs a strong and independent voice on the burning issues of our time, not some feeble echo of a stale Western chorus.

At an informal interaction with members of the Indian strategic community during the visit to New Delhi of General James Jones in July, an American official asked whether there was any decision the Obama administration could take that would be as ‘totemic' for the bilateral relationship as the Bush administration's July 2005 offer of a nuclear deal had been.

When it was suggested that an endorsement of India's candidature for a permanent seat in a reformed United Nations Security Council might arguably fit the bill, one official said the question was indeed being studied actively in Washington as part of the preparatory work for President Barack Obama's November visit. “But any decision will likely depend on our assessment of the extent to which India is likely to play a responsible role as a permanent member”.

I was reminded of that conversation when External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told journalists on Wednesday that India's election as a non-permanent member of the UNSC with the support of 187 of the world body's 192 member states provided an opportunity for the country to “establish its credentials and credibility in handling issues which come up with a degree of responsibility.”

The key question, of course, is the metric one uses to measure “responsibility”. As the principal empowered organ of the U.N. system, the Security Council deals with questions of international security that are often intensely political. During the Cold War, the rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union meant the biggest questions of war and peace tended to be settled far away from the horse-shoe table around which the 15 members of the UNSC sat. But ever since the end of the bipolar division of the world, the work of the Security Council has undergone a quantitative and qualitative transformation. Consider this statistic. Prior to 1990, the total number of resolutions passed by it over 45 years was 646. In the 20 years since then, however, a total of 1295 resolutions have been passed, the last being No. 1942 of September 29, 2010, authorising a temporary increase in the military and police personnel contingents of UNOCI, the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire.

India, incidentally, has sent soldiers for that operation and has historically been one of the top contributors to U.N. peacekeeping efforts around the world. Much of the UNSC's expanded docket has to do with the increase in peacekeeping responsibilities, the discharge of which is mostly without major controversy. But political considerations come into play on issues where the United States and its allies, especially Israel, or other big powers, have their own stake and want the Security Council to take a decision on a particular course of action. It is on these sorts of questions that India's performance as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system will likely be tested.

Consider an example. In June this year, Brazil and Turkey, both non-permanent members of the Security Council, voted against a resolution imposing new sanctions on Tehran. Both countries had just helped to broker a crucial agreement under which Iran would have sent out a considerable part of its low-enriched uranium stock in exchange for the eventual supply of medical-grade enriched uranium for use in a research reactor. That agreement might well have served as a first step in the process of building confidence and trust between Iran and the West but the U.S. went out of its way to scuttle those prospects by insisting on the imposition of new punitive sanctions.

In the eyes of many if not most countries, Brazil and Turkey acted highly responsibly by voting against the sanctions resolution and insisting that the U.N. pursue the path of diplomacy and compromise rather than confrontation and coercion. How might India have voted had it been on the Security Council this summer? Would it have voted against, like Ankara and Brasilia? Or abstained, like Lebanon? Or voted for the resolution, like the remaining 12? Around the time the issue was being discussed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior Indian officials had said on the record that India did not believe the imposition of sanctions would help resolve anything. Having helped to send the Iran file to New York by voting with the United States at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 and 2006, India now realises the Security Council has not played a particularly useful role in finding a peaceful solution to the problem. But it is one thing to criticise sanctions in abstract and another to cast a negative ballot at the Security Council. When such a situation arises again, as it surely will in the next two years, there will be no shortage of pundits in India who will argue that New Delhi has more to gain by siding with the U.S. than by sticking to its position. “There is no way we can become a permanent member if we antagonise Washington”, we will be told, so let us use our non-permanent seat to demonstrate how “responsible” we really are.

The problem, of course, is that whatever Washington's expectations might be, the rest of the world values India precisely because of its ability to reason for itself and stick to its own positions. If the non-permanent seat India has just won is indeed to become a stepping stone for a permanent seat, the Manmohan Singh government will have to focus less on convincing the U.S. about how “responsible” it can be. It should instead work hard to demonstrate how a restructured Security Council built around the inclusion of rising powers like itself, Brazil and South Africa stands a better chance of solving the world's problems than the present outdated arrangement. Fortuitously, all three IBSA countries will be on the UNSC at the same time, as will the BRIC group.

Even as its salience in international affairs has increased, the UNSC has been singularly unsuccessful in dealing with new and emerging crises like terrorism and piracy or resolving existing problems like the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory. For 13 long years, the Security Council remained seized of the Iraq file and maintained sanctions over that unfortunate country; and then, when the U.S. defied its mandate by illegally invading and occupying Iraq, it remained a mute and powerless spectator. There is a structural problem with the Council which runs must deeper than the existence of veto power in the hands of the P-5. Today, despite the growing American ability to mobilise all permanent members behind its initiatives, as in the case of Iran and even North Korea, the UNSC has not managed to make much headway because it is unrepresentative and because the solutions it proposes lack credibility.

At the end of the day, this is the strongest argument India and other aspirants for permanent seats can make. This will mean conceiving of, and pushing for, innovative approaches to the world's major problems, even if this rubs the United States or any other power the wrong way. Yes, any of the P-5 can veto the General Assembly's eventual recommendations for permanent membership as and when these emerge from the text-based negotiations now underway in New York. The U.S., for example, may well decide that an independent-minded India will not be an asset on an expanded Security Council. But if it were to ever take the extreme step of vetoing India's candidature, it would also have to then deal with the diplomatic, political and economic consequences of such an act.