India has adapted smoothly to the changed circumstances at the ongoing annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York this year. The leadership of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) made India their priority during the 77th UNGA’s ‘high-level segment’, when heads of state and government took over the world’s important pulpit in the third week of September. Indians across the board in the government, who were in New York for the event, lectured a lot less to the world than at any time in the last 75 years. They offered fewer prescriptions to others: instead, they tried to obtain for India the most they could from the opportunities thrown up at the large and resourceful gathering.
Jaishankar, who led the delegation and stood in for the PM, extensively put the 5-S — samman, samvaad, sahyog, shanti and samriddhi — into practice.
Here is one example. Sherpas from the relatively new plurilateral group, I2U2 – India-Israel-UAE-US – decided to meet in New York since they were at the UN headquarters for the UNGA. In place of the high-minded hyperbole about global problems that such meetings often produce, Dammu Ravi, the Indian Sherpa, pushed for consideration at the meeting something that would benefit India and within the group’s reach. So, breaking from precedent, the meeting took stock of a $2-billion, UAE-funded project to develop integrated food parks across India. Ravi also persuaded his three counterparts to review the progress of a project in hybrid renewable energy in Gujarat, consisting of 300 MW of wind and solar capacity complemented by a battery energy storage system.
Hardcore multilateralists would argue that the UNGA is an occasion to address global problems, especially in a year when the community of nations is facing the gravest crisis since World War II because of the conflict in Ukraine, and a global health crisis. But Ravi’s strength is economic diplomacy, which has become ever more central to conventional diplomacy precisely because of such crises. Ravi is the MEA’s secretary in charge of external economic relations. He managed to get the I2U2 to ‘commit to deepening the economic partnership among the four countries’, instead of unrealistic, but noble, goals of uplifting an entire region or their larger neighbourhood.
The food parks to be set up by the UAE will incorporate state-of-the-art, climate-smart technologies to reduce food waste and spoilage, conserve fresh water, and employ renewable energy sources. Its global context, true to the UN spirit, should not be missed because the UAE will host the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties in 2023 and it is home to the UN’s International Renewable Energy Agency. The project in Gujarat will cost $330 million and its feasibility study is being done by the US Trade and Development Agency as part of an I2U2 process.
The challenges before New Delhi as it prepared for the UNGA were immense. This is the first ‘normal’ General Assembly in three years: the pandemic ravaged the UNGA in 2020. In 2021, it was a nominal event, with most world leaders skipping in-person attendance as countries battled Covid waves. For India, last year’s UNGA and the ongoing session are exceptional, because they run parallel to India’s two-year elected membership of the UN Security Council. India assumed presidency of the council a month before last year’s UNGA. PM Modi’s ‘5-S approach’ to the country’s role in the world body, which would have been spotlighted by the Indian delegation in a normal year’s UNGA, had to be advanced to coincide with the Indian presidency.
The 5-S approach is India’s new Panchsheel on the global stage. It is made up of samman (respect), samvaad (dialogue), sahyog (cooperation), shanti (peace) and samriddhi (prosperity). This year, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who led the Indian delegation and stood in for Modi, extensively put this approach into practice. Aside from meeting other delegation heads, he hosted or attended a record number of plurilateral meetings. One lesson to be learned from his style is that India should abandon the convention of the PM and the External Affairs Minister not being in New York at the same time during the high-level segment. India’s traditional approach has been for the PM to be at the UN during this most important week, to be followed by the External Affairs Minister the week after. Thereafter, a Minister of State from the MEA takes over and, finally, a group of Parliament members go to the UN for the committee-level work of the UNGA process which lasts into the new year.
As soon as he arrived in New York, Jaishankar persuaded his counterpart from Argentina, Santiago Cafiero, to call a meeting to revitalise the India-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum. The 32 CELAC members were pleased with the attention given to them by India, a member of the Security Council. India has room for manoeuvre in CELAC because of its unique composition: big powers in the region – the US and Canada as well as France, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands – which have territories there are not allowed to be in CELAC so as not to dilute its focus. Another of Jaishankar’s initiatives was to co-host a meeting which commemorated the 15th anniversary of the founding of the L-69 group, which stands with India in seeking reform to the council. It is so-called after the number of the draft Assembly resolution – L-69 – in 2007, which established the ‘intergovernmental negotiation’ process for reform.
Such meetings were in addition to the routine ones that take place on the sidelines of every UNGA: the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum Trilateral Ministerial Commission and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa conclave at the level of foreign ministers. Overall, India’s actions during the 2022 UNGA so far have rallied like-minded countries against western attempts to move the world body away from being driven by its members and accord a bigger role to their corporate entities, and sympathetic non-governmental organisations.
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