Conquering the Lords

India vs UK by Syed Akbaruddin

As I was updating this book on my ‘Currently Reading’ list on Goodreads, I tagged it under the shelf Politics. I had half a mind to select Thriller as well. And that would not have been wrong in any way possible. Written by one of the finest diplomats India has produced, this recounts the details of the one of the greatest diplomatic wins by India. One in which time, diplomatic hefts, conventions and traditions, and resources were all stacked against us. And yet where we come out on top.

This is the story of how a butterfly flapping its wings in Pakistan created a storm in the US. Of the three legal bodies of the UN, the ILC (International Law Commission), the ILTOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea),and the ICJ (International Court of Justice), India was going to contest only the first two in 2016–17. Approximately two years before the election to elect judges to the ICJ was supposed to happen, the Indian Permanent Representative to UN sent feelers to New Delhi to fathom if we were contesting it or not. There was no affirmative response from Delhi and the Indian mission toiled to ensure that its two nominees get successfully elected. And then suddenly, one day merely months before the election to the ICJ was supposed to happen, it was decided that India is going to throw its hat in the ring. What happened that wrought such change in our decision?

Well, a butterfly flapped its wings in Pakistan. A Pakistani military court convicted Kulbhushan Jadhav and ordered his execution. India had been almost shy of approaching ICJ till now on any issue. The ICJ passed an order asking Pakistan to stay its order and agreed to India’s demand of providing counselor support to him. This brought a sudden change in the importance with which India viewed ICJ and this is the moment that it decided to contest the upcoming election. However, there was a small hole in this thought. A hole the size of a blackhole. All other candidates had been canvassing for about a year by now and India had used all its diplomatic favours to get the necessary votes for its two candidates for ILC and ILTOS.

When the election to ILTOS finished, India had about five months to do the undoable. It was a difficult task to begin with but was made more difficult with other countries already pledging their votes based on reciprocity or group voting as Arab nations or African nations or francophones. Indian diplomats worked day and night to reach out to their counterparts in other missions to sense their dispositions. The EAM Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, were also busy in home soil to contact all the foreign representatives to garner their votes. Zambia also announced its surprise candidature but bowed out soon after. Now it was between six nations to fight for five seats. When the voting began, all six got enough votes, but as the round progressed, the results looked bleaker and bleaker for India. India lost the majority in the Security Council. But to everyone’s surprise, UK had lost the same in the General Assembly. The other four candidates were elected, and it became a direct fight between the colonisers and the colony.

The UK desperately wanted to win this seat. It was a permanent five member, who always have the votes of the other four in the Security Council. These five countries also have had permanent seats in the ICJ. This fight was also indicating that India wanted to upset the applecart. As Syed Akbaruddin puts it, elections in national politics are aimed at change, but in multilateral politics, it is done to maintain the status quo. India was fighting an uphill battle in the Security Council, as it had to win eight of the ten votes of non-permanent members, as the others always voted en bloc. But India’s deft maneuvering in the General Assembly ensured that it always had the greater popular vote. As the deadlock between the old giants and the rising power continued, all tricks in the book were being employed. US started a campaign asking other countries not to vote for India, which came to a stop when Syed Akbaruddin pointed this out to the Foreign Secretary, Nikki Haley. A time came when every senior official tried to see the ‘realistic’ picture and reach a compromise as this election stretched longer than anyone had imagined. A moral victory was what they were happy with, a settlement where they share the seat or any other arrangement. But the young diplomats stood their ground and argued that all this effort was not for a moral victory. They had the belief that they can do the unthinkable. Dislodge a permanent member from the ICJ. Get an extra Asian seat on the ICJ that was, as per unsaid conventions, a European seat.

India had support from many developing nations. The Pacific Island Nations and the African nations overwhelmingly supported India. It was all due to the development activities these nations could take up due to the funding by India. I remember I was reading a book called India’s Overseas Mission. In one instance, Manmohan Singh, to the Vajpayee government (if my memory serves me correct), had asked in Parliament why we were sending peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, where we did not have any significant diplomatic or economic relation. I thought that this made for a valid point. But strange are the ways of diplomacy. Rather than questioning India’s actions, it would have been better to ask for India’s diplomatic presence in these countries. India’s effort to aid developing nations in the Pacific and other regions created goodwill that helped it in garnering crucial votes in the general assembly. Similarly, I doubted how SCO can be leveraged to India’s benefit, but in this case PM Modi’s interaction with President Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the SCO meeting helped in India getting the first pledge for its candidature from Uzbekistan.

India’s game plan was to get to two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, which they expected would implore UK to lose any moral ground to contest it. And as per calculations, they would have got to it eventually. But UK wanted this seat at all costs. Its reputation was at stake. How can the empire lose to the conquered? It was ready to go to any lengths. And to any lengths, it did go. It proposed to invoke Article 12, which would convene a joint conference of select members of the Security Council and General Assembly. This has never been used in the history of the UN and no one knows what could have happened. But UK believed it could pull the votes based on its support in Security Council. India stood its ground and did not agree to this. Ultimately, it was decided that the regular voting would continue. However, UK threw in the towel and withdrew its candidature and India won the fifth seat unanimously. The storm in the US had ended. Soon after, even the butterfly stopped flapping its wings.

This victory was not unlike the one at Lord’s in the summer of ’83. There was a team of marauders with Viv Richards leading the attack and possibly the most dangerous pace quartet ever to hold the leather. They had not lost a single World Cup match coming into the tournament. India had won only a single match, against a lowly East Africa. No punter would bet on India to beat the West Indies. But they did beat them. Twice. The second one at Lord’s. In this case, India beat a permanent five member, that had an enviable standing in the world, and that had the other four members of permanent five by its side all through. As the victory in 1983 changed the way we viewed cricket, this changed the way we do diplomacy. We opened permanent missions in many countries where we did not have a diplomatic footprint before. This also showed that the world order can be challenged. And the lords can be conquered as well.

In 1983, we came as minnows and shook the world. In 2011, we came as champions, played as champions, and were crowned champions. Now what remains to be seen is how fast can we get to 2011 in diplomacy.

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