By speaking for all nations without going into details, India expressed its confidence that it cannot be excluded if the Security Council is expanded. This was more effective than the usual assertion of the Indian claim on every occasion, says T P Sreenivasan.
Diplomats at the UN, burdened by the weight of their national positions, do not applaud statements by leaders of other countries except at the end of their speeches as dictated by tradition.
They rarely burst into applause over an idea or a declaration as nothing is taken at face value. Speeches are for analysis in depth for new nuances in policy. But they applauded Dr Manmohan Singh when he read out a short paragraph on UN reform.
"We must address the issue of the deficit in global governance. We need a stronger and more effective United Nations that is sensitive to the aspirations of everyone -- rich or poor, big or small. For this, the United Nations and its principal organs, the General Assembly and the Security Council, must be revitalised and reformed. The reform and expansion of the Security Council are essential if it is to reflect contemporary reality. Such an outcome will enhance the Council's credibility and effectiveness in dealing with global issues. Early reform of the Security Council must be pursued with renewed vigour and urgently enacted," said Dr Manmohan Singh.
What attracted attention was the clear and forthright statement on reform, which can be endorsed by 193 member States, including the permanent members. All of them acknowledge that the Security Council needs reform to reflect contemporary reality and to enhance its credibility and effectiveness.
But if the prime minister had gone beyond this even to say that both the permanent and non-permanent categories should be expanded, the applause would have been less. If he pleaded for G-4 or went into the merits of India's claim, he would have been greeted with stony silence.
By speaking for all nations without going into details, India expressed its confidence that it cannot be excluded if the Council is expanded. This was more effective than the usual assertion of the Indian claim on every occasion.
Statesmanship and restraint have paid off instantly. Whatever he may have discussed with his counterparts in the corridors, the position he articulated in the speech was dignified and it helped to remove the impression that securing permanent membership was India's highest priority in the UN.
In fact, the whole speech of the prime minister at the General Assembly this year was statesmanlike. He spoke not just for India, but for the world and sought solutions for the economic and political ills of the world. He plunged straight into the economic scene without much of an introduction and identified the adverse impact of globalisation.
Coming as it did from Dr Manmohan Singh, the assessment seemed surprising. Though he did not go into remedies, the diagnosis clearly indicated that globalisation did not yield the kind of results expected of it.
Given the atmospherics in New York, which focused on the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular, Dr Manmohan Singh could not have skirted the problems of the region. Though the Arab Spring was inspired by a welcome demand by the people for the right to shape their own future, the consequence was spiraling price rise and instability.
The steadfast support for a Palestine State was balanced by asserting the need for the region to live in peace with Israel. The strongest political message he delivered to the West was, "The observance of the rule of law is as important in international affairs as it is within countries. Societies cannot be reordered from outside through military force." But he did not spare authoritarian regimes.
"Governments are duty bound to their citizens to create conditions that enable them to freely determine their pathways to development. This is the essence of democracy and fundamental freedoms," he said.
In other words, the prime minister categorically stated the rationale behind the positions adopted by India in the Security Council in the last nine months. Together with his meeting with the President of Iran and the announcement made in New York that he would visit Iran, the prime minister's statement may well be taken as a signal that India was expanding its options all around.
The prime minister spoke of terrorism, encouraging signs of cooperation in South Asia, need for reconciliation in Afghanistan, piracy, disarmament and safety of nuclear plants, the international issues that have been engaging his attention. He also gave considerable attention to the old and traditional links with Africa and the Least Developed Countries. The only references he made to domestic issues, which were dogging him to New York was about poverty alleviation and the importance of a democratic, plural and secular India.
UN speeches are not occasions to change policy, but to elaborate national positions in a manner that will influence friends and adversaries alike. Dr Manmohan Singh clearly gave the impression that he was resorting to some of the old ideological strains and old constituencies to signal his disappointment with the West. But he did it in a language which nobody would take exception to. As the adage goes, a diplomat is a person who can make someone look forward to the trip if he is asked to go to hell.
Having been a ghost writer of UN speeches for prime ministers and foreign ministers, I know the processes and procedures that go into the exercise of preparing speeches. Inputs come from various sources and it is a challenge to create a cohesive and comprehensive speech from a multitude of drafts.
One foreign minister had the habit of asking various officials and academics for ideas for the speech and it was hard to wade through the flood of material that came in. Often, the speech became a tour d' horizon, stretching into several pages and covering much of the agenda of the General Assembly.
The speech this time had the merit of being elegant, precise and brief. It provided the backdrop for Indian positions in the General Assembly and the Security Council.
Foreign visits and UN accolades give some relief to prime ministers when they are under siege by intractable domestic issues. The case of Dr Manmohan Singh was no different, with one of the scams exploding at the very time he was meeting his counterparts and giving thought to the global economic and political challenges "at a time of great uncertainty and profound change."
The applause in the General Assembly was not drowned out by the opposition in India and the PM's worldview appeared to enjoy consensus back home, not a mean achievement in these turbulent times.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.
He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.
For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here