Maldives and Afghanistan are competing for the presidency of the UNGA’s 76th session next year. India needs to play a leadership role in the region, quickly

Now that ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has served an unplanned yet welcome purpose going beyond traditional Indian national behaviour, it may be time for New Delhi to build on the positives, that too for the common political good of the region as a whole. Going beyond bilaterals in the neighbourhood, New Delhi may now consider retrieving the leadership role in South Asia, which the world used to acknowledge as ‘India’s traditional sphere of influence’, but not anymore.

A new urgency has arisen, as nominees of two of India’s SAARC friends in Afghanistan and Maldives are competing for the presidency of the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) 76th session next year. The General Assembly will be voting on the same in the 75th session later this year, and there may be other candidates too in the fray, making the election difficult for the two South Asian nations.

Competing with each other from the region are former Afghanistan Foreign Minister Dr Zalmai Rassoul and incumbent Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid. Of the two, Minister Shahid had announced his candidacy early on. India then publicly backed him during Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s Male visit late last year. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reiterated the same during his Male visit in February this year. He said that Shahid was ‘best equipped’ to chair the UNGA.

Ease, unease: Though two of its friendly neighbours are in the fray, New Delhi can feel at ease, citing chronology of the candidacies. But an element of unease could remain, especially in future Afghan relations. During the recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to New Delhi, Jaishankar recalled how developments in Afghanistan had impacted India’s security all along.

Even without it, the ‘China factor’ and the larger Indian Ocean Region (IOR) security viz. Maldives, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles are of India’s concern, going beyond national interests. India is the only naval power in the region that can secure the IOR in these parts and also their land borders if it came to that. Yet, it cannot afford to take chances, nor can it upset one or another SAARC neighbour, beyond Pakistan. This is so despite SAARC remaining non-functional, owing to Islamabad’s intransigence on cross-border terrorism targeting India.

There is more to it. New Delhi cannot be seen as shirking the responsibility to try and ensure a semblance of regional order and cooperation. The political cost of such Indian behaviour would be high for the region, and even more for India. Apart from China and Pakistan, India’s traditional adversaries, the ‘Six-Plus-Two’ grouping on the Afghan peace process includes the US, Russia and Iran. Just as they can influence Kabul, the reverse can also be true. India, which is the region’s leader and yet is not on the Afghan peace grouping, cannot ignore the ground realities.

One large family: Before India lived up to the ancient adage ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ or ‘Yadhum oore, yavarum kelir’ (both meaning ‘The world is one family’) on the hard-to-get Covid vaccine, New Delhi had rushed naval and air force personnel for rescue, relief and restoration work in Sri Lanka, Maldives and the worst-hit Indonesia at the height of the Asian tsunami in December 2004, even when the nation had suffered badly. Apart from death and destruction elsewhere, the IAF’s Carnic base had been washed away along with men and material, while Indira Point, the nation’s southernmost area in Great Nicobar Island, subsided by nearly 15 feet.

Expanding bilaterals: At one level, the UNGA presidency is regional pride. By extension, a defeat for either of the South Asian contestants, along with the possibility of the two cancelling out each other to the advantage of a third candidate, can be a regional issue. India’s standing in the regional and global arenas will go up if it were able to manage the emerging regional crisis. But it can stand to lose more than national pride if it were to let things drift on the Afghan-Maldives front.

In context, at the UNHRC, for instance, of the four voting members from among the eight SAARC nations, two, namely, Bangladesh and Pakistan, sided with a third member, Sri Lanka. India and Nepal abstained. It is said that the Indian abstention also ensured a few more, though Colombo too had foreseen the final outcome.

The same cannot however be said about the UNGA elections. New Delhi has to anticipate regional and extra-regional powers seeking to exploit the emerging situation. Whether it’s the non-member US that backed the Western initiative, or China, which backed Colombo along with Russia and Pakistan, they would now take over from where they had left it with Sri Lanka.

There is also the real possibility of India losing out one of its trusted friends, if and when the anticipated push comes to shove on the UNGA vote. It is thus time for India to act, and act positively and decisively, if only to present a unified South Asia to the rest of the world—and also regain its traditional leadership role in the region. Yes, there is a lot at risk if India takes the plunge for mediation, but there is more to lose otherwise.