As is customary, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj used her visit to the UN General Assembly to present some of the important preoccupations of the government and to seek international support and sympathy for what it was trying to achieve. She spoke of the strategy for economic advancement and mentioned several of the programmes to alleviate poverty that the government has initiated.
Among broader issues of global significance she made specific mention of climate change, which has become one of the important issues before the government. No less customary was the Indian minister’s reference to the need to reform the UN and enlarge the Security Council, which is a cause that has been actively promoted for a few decades by India and a few other like-minded nations. Currently UN reform does not have a high profile either at the UN, where other issues command greater salience, or in India’s foreign policy goals where other considerations are more prominent. Re-statement of established foreign policy purposes like UN reform was therefore a useful reminder of India’s goals and targets in this field.
What made the headlines, however, was not reiteration of established and traditional directions of policy but the vigour of the Minister’s remarks aimed at Pakistan. She drew a pointed contrast between India’s success in establishing major institutions of learning like its IIMs and IITs, while Pakistan had only set up instruments like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammed. This was a strong rebuke, all the more striking for being essentially correct in contrasting what the two countries had been able to achieve.
She had a good deal more to say on terrorism, on which India has repeatedly tried to rally international opinion and encourage concerted international action to curb the menace. Ms. Swaraj spoke of the long-pending convention on international terrorism that lies before the UN but is yet to achieve consensus, and called for agreement on defining the issue more concretely so that joint action can become more attainable.
Speaking in Hindi, as she did also a year ago, she made her points effectively and also replied to what the Pak Prime Minister had said about India the previous day. The UN grants the right of reply and the Pak Permanent Representative spoke on behalf of her country in response to the Indian Minister.
This did not go quite as might have been intended, for in her speech she showed a photograph of a young woman injured by pellet shots that were wrongly said to have been fired by Indian security forces in Kashmir though the picture was of an incident in Palestine. This embarrassment to Pakistan should not obscure the deterioration in relations that the exchanges at the UN showed. The Indian Minister referred to the repeated efforts by her Prime Minister to reach out and be in touch with Pakistan which did not get very far owing to lack of reciprocity.
At the UN, Pakistan kept repeating its demand for discussion on Kashmir if comprehensive dialogue was to recommence while India did not see a way forward without unconditional effort to bring a halt to terrorism.
These are familiar positions of the two sides and the exchanges at the UN only showed how wide is the gap between them. To add to the matter, there were several incidents along the Line of Control instigated from the Pakistani side even while the diplomatic procedures of the UN were in train. As so often in the past, the spoilers were active and tried to ensure that there should be no drawing closer, which in any case seems a remote possibility in current circumstances. The exchanges at the UN have become highly ritualized and are important more for what they show of the current state of relations than for any expectation of change.
The domestic audience will expect their representatives to put their case effectively as was done in New York, and speaking in Hindi, as has now become the norm, means more immediate communication with the domestic audience at home. The hard boiled delegates to the UN are unlikely to be swayed by rhetorical flourishes and would be more likely to wish to assess the speeches for what they reveal of possible innovation and policy shifts.
There was not much of that to observe when the Indian Minister and the Pak PM before her spoke. While these events from the subcontinent were occupying the stage, rather more insistent and dangerous matters were also being talked about, relating to North Korea and the USA. India and Pakistan had sharp words for each other but what hey had to say pales in comparison with the rhetorical blows exchanged between Pyongyang and Washington.
Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the General Assembly chamber resounded to the sort of disdainful, personalized insults that were to be heard from these two countries. The Heads of the two States were personally involved in the exchanges, which is unusual, for indulgence in rhetorical excess is usually left to less prominent spokespersons. This fiery, toplevel name-calling was tinged with uncertainty about where it might be leading. North Korea has perhaps deliberately created an image of unpredictability, and has built up its armed strength after breaking through to the level of a nuclear power with formidable missile capacity.
The recent tests it has conducted have given some sort of substance to its taunts against the unassailable super power USA, which in turn has not been slow with threats of its own. India may not be in the direct line of fire but it is bound to be uncomfortable with these developments and their regional ramifications. India’s ‘Act East’ policy is an important initiative, the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe underlines the growing importance of India’s eastward links, so it is very much in Indian interest that matters in the Far East should calm down and not become a constraint on its emerging policy.
Events having developed as they did, India can take satisfaction from how matters went in New York. The exchanges with Pakistan were sometimes fierce and there was no letup in the hostile arguments, but still neither engaged in warlike rhetoric ~ the contrast with the give-andtake between the USA and North Korea speaks for itself.
Speeches at the UN can sometimes magnify differences between countries because leaders are customarily speaking to their domestic audiences who often demand tough talk from their representatives. Beneath the smooth exterior of its diplomats the UN has been described as a dangerous place, and some of its dangers were to be seen during the engrossing recent events involving our own and other senior world leaders.
(The writer is India‘s former Foreign Secretary)