The wait for a more sincere offer than the ones in the 1950s hasn’t borne fruit in more than six decades now. One can definitely see why Jawaharlal Nehru was sceptical of the UNSC seat offers in 1950s. However, it is difficult to sympathise with his reasons today

by Kunal Singh

More than five decades after his death, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, continues to regularly feature in the national political discourse. One of the recent instances was when finance minister, Arun Jaitley, found a reason to blame Nehru in the backdrop of China blocking the move to get Pakistan-based terrorist, Masood Azhar, sanctioned by the United Nations (UN). Jaitley cited a letter (dated August 2, 1955) written by Nehru to chief ministers, in which he talks about informal suggestions that were made to India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Nehru made it clear that though India deserved a permanent seat in the UNSC, it won’t grab it at the expense of China, which was also a candidate for the same seat. As a great country, Nehru argued, China should first find its rightful place in the UNSC and India’s case could be considered separately.

Most historians defend Nehru’s decision by claiming that the offer to India was not genuine. There is no way to fact check this claim. Since Nehru never entertained these offers — there was one by the US in 1950 and another by the Soviet Union in 1955 — any assertion on this count is purely speculative. For what it is worth, Anton Harder, a scholar who has studied the subject, claims that the US offer should “be regarded as quite sincere”. Historians then go on to describe the circumstances to justify and explain Nehru’s call. Let us look into their arguments.

First, Nehru firmly believed that the task of developing India could only be achieved in a peaceful environment. The UN was a critical forum for fostering a cooperative attitude among nations and thus preventing the world from drifting into a war again. This is exactly where the League of Nations had failed. Nehru wanted the UN to succeed. India’s admission into the UNSC would demand a revision of the UN charter and thus could destabilise the multilateral institution, which was still in its infancy.

Second, Nehru saw the absence of China in the UN as a big problem — something which could, again, lead to the failure of the UN and the onset of wars. In 1953, he said that by not recognising China, the UN had given a go by to the principle of universality and thus repeated the same mistake that led to the failure of League of Nations. With the memory of the Second World War still fresh, such concerns were eminently understandable. Nehru also thought, as Harder points out, that greater socialisation and integration of China would reduce causes of conflict.

Third, the offer from the US came at a time when Washington was looking to shape the UN’s decision-making in its favour. The Soviet Union had walked out of the UN in January 1950 in protest against the US (and others) blocking People’s Republic of China from taking up the Nationalist China’s seat in the UNSC. The US used the Soviet Union’s absence to push resolutions against North Korea’s aggression in the Korean War. Cutting its losses, the Soviet Union returned to its seat in August. The offer to India was made shortly after. India had voted with the US on two of the three resolutions passed on the Korean War in the Soviet Union’s absence. The US thought further support against the communists could be achieved by dangling a carrot to India.

This account definitely helps us look at the bigger picture comprising Nehru’s view of the UN, the importance he laid on Chinese integration with the world and selfish motives behind the UNSC offer. But still it is not difficult to conclude that Nehru made a mistake, even if this is obvious only with the benefit of hindsight. Most of his apprehensions behind rejecting the offer proved to be far removed from reality. One, we have not had a third World War but that has little to do with the UN’s success and a lot to do with nuclear deterrence. Two, Nehru’s efforts at helping China integrate with the world did not prevent the India-China war in 1962. Three, China did not get its seat in UNSC till 1971 and that did not lead to UN’s destabilisation in the interim. Four, when China finally got its seat, it was possible because of the US assent which emerged out of, again, selfish motives — Washington wanted to exploit the Sino-Soviet split to its advantage in the Cold War. Why couldn’t India have similarly utilised America’s “selfish” offer to its own advantage in 1950?

One can definitely see why Nehru was sceptical of the UNSC seat offers in the 1950s. However, it is difficult to sympathise with his reasons today. There has been no reform of the Security Council ever since, and therefore, India’s case has never been considered separately and seriously. India-China relations remain adversarial and Beijing has used its presence in the UNSC to harm Indian interests. And the UN is by no means a body that can claim, with a straight face, to serve the cause of global peace. It has repeatedly been used and abused by great powers for their own self-interests. As far as India is concerned, the wait for a more sincere offer than the ones in the 1950s hasn’t borne fruit in more than six decades now.