Hardeep Singh Puri, a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, has strong and impassioned views on reform of the UN Security Council and India’s formidable credentials for getting the prized high seat on the UNSC. In this free-wheeling conversation with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org), Mr Puri speaks about the evolution of the BRICS grouping of emerging powers, India’s expectations from the summit and the usefulness of the BRICS grouping to advance the democratisation of the international order.
“You can’t have a country of India’s size: 1.2 billion people, a 2- trillion dollar economy, a country of Mahatma Gandhi and the world’s largest democracy, with a great story to tell, not a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” he says in this interview.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Q) From India’s point of view, what is the importance of the BRICS grouping of five emerging powers? What outcomes can be expected from the sixth BRICS summit in Fortaleza?
A) BRICS is an interesting sui generis combination. It owes its origins not to an intergovernmental setting, but the concept was first mentioned in an econometric analysis by Goldman Sachs. And this econometric analysis was done some years ago so that in the coming years these economies — Brazil, Russia, India and China — would be fast growing economies. Their contention was that the business opportunities available in these countries, for others and for trade among themselves, would be considerable. And subsequently, South Africa joined the group in 2012, making the grouping BRICS. I would say that this is one of a kind grouping, it’s a plurilateral grouping because it has a limited membership. There have been attempts by other countries to want to join it. It is interesting and has tremendous potential, but I would say, in the economic sphere. Because the Chinese are the world’s second largest economy, India is a reasonably successful economy, and so is Brazil; Russia again is very energy-rich economy, and South Africa is a success story in various way.
Now the BRICS decided to meet, to start with, on the margins of the UN General Assembly, then they proceeded to meet at the level of foreign ministers level in Yekaterinburg in Russia, and I happened to be present there when I was India’s ambassador in Brazil. It was in the Russian city that they decided that they would meet also at heads of state and government level.
Q) How do you look at the expansion of the BRICS agenda over the years?
A) A lot of water has flown under the bridge since this grouping was proposed; now there are ambitious proposals on the table. One of the proposals is the BRICS Bank, there are other proposals for economic cooperation, but as an intergovernmental grouping, I would say that the BRICS’ collective identity is still in the early stage. And for that they are many reasons, many of the members of the BRICS, in fact all of them, have independently good relations with the United States. There is some anxiety particularly in the West that the BRICS are, as a grouping, would be formed to provided countervailing strength to the United States; now I don’t buy that line. I think if you look at the relations just now between the Russians and the Americans the relations are somewhat troubled, but if you look at China–US relations there are some uncertainties, but all the others would be somewhat weary wanting to create a kind of trade union against the West. I mean, in India‘s case, you have the United States which is our largest trading partner. With US, India’s trade in goods and services is 100 billion dollars, and with China it’s 70-74 billion dollars. So these are all very important trading relationships.
In any case in contemporary diplomacy one does not look at issues and the country grouping in terms of these being at the expense of one’s relations with other countries, individuals or groups. So I think it’s a very important meeting. Personally, I am delighted that the prime minister has decided to go there. This will provide him with a very important and significant opportunity early in his tenure to meet his counterparts from China, Brazil, Russia and South Africa. But also to meet other South American leaders, with whom I believe a meeting is being established.
Q) Mr Puri, you served as India’s PR to the UN. One of the driving forces behind the BRICS process is the reform of global governance institutions, and the reform of the UN Security Council. How do you look at the usefulness of BRICS format to promote the reform of global governance architecture?
A) This is the only point in the interview where I might have to disagree with you. Russia and China are the only two countries which are holding back on Security Council reforms. So the BRICS could be a great opportunity, and a very useful forum if we are able to use our margin of persuasion with the Chinese and the Russians and tell them that if we become the member of the Security Council, it would be a better and more representative council with Brazil, India and South Africa on it. It would also be a more mature and a much more sober council. Not having us there is in no one’s interest, point one. Point two: the Chinese also need to realise that there is enough space out there in the global governance architecture for both China and India to be members of that.
The BRICS grouping gets undermined because on political issues you have two permanent members of the Security Council in that group, and you have three aspiring members. Two of them, Brazil and India, have openly proclaimed their membership of the G4, along with Japan and Germany. South Africa wants to become a permanent member of the UNSC but has been flirting with the G4; it is in some ways supportive of the G4, but it has also decided to retain its African identity.
Our problem has been, and I am happy to talk about it now, that we did not have the political will. I don’t think the prime minister ever took up these issues, the previous prime minister, and I don’t think we have had the time to brief Prime Minister Modi, because he is new and he has been preoccupied with many issues. Sometimes I worry that the ministry of external affairs themselves is not entirely on board because ours’ foreign policy, by and large, over the last decade, has been a risk-averse policy; very hesitant and reticent. And that is what leads to strategic confusion. Now you can’t have a country of India’s size: 1.2 billion people, a 2 trillion dollar economy, a country of Mahatma Gandhi and with a great story to tell, the world’s largest democracy, in which 660 million people turn out to vote, somewhat raucous sometimes, not be the member of the Security Council as a permanent member. That escapes me. So BRICS could be an extremely useful forum, if we can use our margin of persuasion there. But I think this is too early in the day for the new government for it to be able to pull out all the stops on that.
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