Author: Krishnendra Meena, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Many have hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly as a historic shift away from the speeches of past Indian heads of state. But in reality, Modi’s speech is more a continuation of the Indian government’s stance on many international issues, albeit with more flourish and charisma, which comes naturally to Modi when he speaks in Hindi.
Modi’s speech covered international issues like terrorism, UN Security Council reform, global development, climate change, the Pakistan question in India’s foreign policy and India’s neighbourhood. Modi’s remarks on most of the issues bore a close resemblance to the previous government’s views. First, Modi began with the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or ‘the world is one family’, which has often been used by Indian heads of state in the United Nations since the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, in 2005, his predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opened his UN speech with the same phrase from Hitopdesha and Panchatantra, Sanskrit fables with morals relevant to statecraft. The phrase is appropriate to express globalist ideas. Many such instances are visible in Modi’s speech to the UN.
The call for reform of the UN Security Council has been a constant feature of India’s UN policy since the end of the Cold War. For the last ten years former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh consistently spoke about reform at international fora. The previous United Progressive Alliance government was thus able to garner support from the international community with President Obama declaring US support for reform during his visit to India in November 2010.
In his speech, Modi called for UN Security Council reforms in the coming years, particularly in light of the post-2015 development agenda. Modi’s call for a world without the various ‘G’ groups — like G7, G4 and G77 — and emphasis on ‘G-All’ resonates well in the UN. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party to which Modi belongs and the largest party of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance, don’t agree. The BJP believe states should maximise their own relative power through such groupings. India actively takes part and has been at the forefront of groups like the BRICS and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa).
Modi’s implicit argument that terrorism is exported to India, a snide reference to Pakistan, has been part and parcel of India’s policy on the issue for decades. But the call for ratification and adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism is a novel one — no previous Indian head of state has expressed it in such clear terms. The issue plaguing the Convention — which has been under discussion since 1996 — is the definition of ‘terrorism’ itself. The acceptance of the definition depends on clarifying whether terrorism can be committed by states as well as non-state actors. Many believe that in many parts of the world terrorism is sponsored by state actors and many state activities are not covered under the current definition.
The Pakistan question was also mentioned in the UN General Assembly address. But the reference was more benign than previous remarks made by Modi in alluding to the recent floods and the continuity of India’s policy of bilateral negotiations between the two countries on crucial issues.
The novelty in Modi’s speech was on two counts: the emphasis on the importance of India’s immediate neighbourhood in South Asia and the importance of yoga as a lifestyle. On the former, Modi declared that ‘a nation’s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbours’. Nothing could be more relevant in the present context, especially if India intends to project out of the region, and as China’s expanding economic reach is felt in South Asia. This and promoting yoga is in perfect harmony with the BJP’s ideas of cultural nationalism. A peaceful neighbourhood may be the first phase for India’s grand ambitions.
Modi’s first address to the UN dispelled hopes that he could deliver what India has been waiting for since independence. There were glimpses of pragmatism and change in Modi’s speech but it mostly represented a continuation of India’s foreign policy under previous governments.
Krishnendra Meena is an Assistant Professor in Political Geography at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.