Since President Ronald Reagan put American triumphalism on the map, there has been a small group that has campaigned to get the US to leave the UN.
Basing their arguments on a blend of accountancy and politics, the ultra-nationalists have suggested that the financial contribution of the world's only superpower to the global body is not commensurate with the returns, neither in patronage nor in influence. The UN, it has been suggested, has become a subversive centre of anti-Americanism.
It is not necessary to be a paid-up sympathiser of the American ultra-Right to believe that everything is not hunky-dory with the UN. From being a global forum to ensure that the tragedy of two world wars wasn't repeated, the UN has become a bloated bureaucracy and got itself involved in just too many unnecessary projects.
In India, where we were brought up to regard the UN as a noble institution, not least because it is an avenue for well-paid jobs and lucrative short-term consultancies, there has been profound irritation over Secretary General Kofi Annan's attempts to meddle in our internal affairs.
Although good diplomacy ensured India kept its displeasure under wraps, it was well known in South Block that one more than one occasion the secretary general was discreetly informed that his presence in India would be unnecessary.
It wasn't that Annan was blessed with what some of our nationalists believe is an anti-India mindset. It is just that after decades of playing apparatchik, the secretary general had imbibed the pompous sanctimoniousness that has come to be associated with the UN. Whether it is the anti-AIDS programme, funding for NGOs or anti-poverty programmes, the UN couples its largesse with a preachiness that is about as infuriating as the Jawaharlal Nehru-Krishna Menon insolence of an earlier era.
Last week, the world was subjected to another sermon in the UNDP Human Development Report 2004. Entitled 'Cultural liberty in today's diverse world,' it is an audacious attempt to define the parameters of healthy democracy. Prepared with generous inputs from Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen and assorted academics in Western universities, the report 'makes a case for respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognise cultural differences.'
In a world that has become smaller, better connected and more cosmopolitan, it is difficult to fault the appeal for greater tolerance and better understanding of each other. The UN, after all, was founded with that objective in mind. Nor should anyone contest the assertion that cultural liberty is ultimately all about 'expanding individual choices.'
However, since the report goes on to argue that the subject must be 'worthy of state action and attention,' it is important to take note of the recommendations. The HDR, it must be stressed, is not just the deliberations of a seminar in an exotic retreat. It is a document that carries the weight, authority and signature of the UN. Consequently, there is an underlying suggestion that its prescriptions correspond to the most enlightened norms of good democracy.
At the core of the HDR is something called 'politics of recognition' which involves 'recognition of the distinctive perspectives of ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, as well as of gender difference.' Contesting traditional notions of nationhood, it calls upon societies to 'embrace multiple identities' and multiple citizenship norms. Advocating a strange commodity called 'consociational democracies,' the report prescribes electoral reforms, flexible federalism, multiple legal systems, linguistic diversity, affirmative action and active measures to fight cultural domination.
It does not need a rocket scientist to discover that the HDR constitutes a frontal assault on almost every political assumption governing normal democracies. Under the guise of more democracy, a UN document has prepared a charter of secessionism and social fragmentation. There is considerable disquiet in the West at the emergence of an immigrant community that does not share the fundamentals of nationhood and, indeed, constitutes a fifth column. The HDR report suggests that this conflict should be celebrated as an expression of 'choice' rather than put down under the guise of uniformity.
Much of India's democracy has been praised by the report but there is a sting in the tail. We have been told to press ahead with other steps for a more libertarian society. The HDR would have us believe that improving the quality of democracy involves proportional representation with reservations, conferring Article 370-type special status on more states, legitimising Sharia courts and other denominational arbitration bodies, more job and educational reservations for newer categories of people, more detoxification of school textbooks and full citizenship rights for illegal immigrants.
Indeed, almost everything an enlightened Indian dreads and deems undesirable about Indian democracy has not only been sanctioned but projected as a model for emulation. Just examine this formulation of the HDR: 'Creating an environment in which multiple identities flourish is no easy task. People must be free to choose how to define themselves and must be afforded the same rights and opportunities that their neighbours enjoy.' Is this not another way of suggesting that there is nothing sacrosanct about Indian identity and that, if expedient, it can be supplanted by another identity based on religion or ethnicity or anything else? Is this not a manifesto for the balkanisation of India?
It would not have mattered if these recommendations had been the rantings of some demented academics. Unfortunately, they happen to be the considered deliberations of a UN-sponsored body and paid for by the contributions of member-states, including India. This is the report that will become the blueprint for secessionists in the North-east, for pro-Taliban clerics, for those demanding separate electorates and job quotas for religious minorities and for those who believe that the only good India is a fragmented India.
The most divisive and perverse tendencies in democratic societies have been legitimised by a UN body. Societies like China which could do with some freedoms will, predictably, never see the report. Nor will the UNDP publicise it there. It is only open societies like India which will serve as a punching bag.
It is not enough to fulminate. The UN has indeed become an agency of subversion. Unchecked, these tendencies will erode national sovereignty and precipitate national disasters. What is necessary at present is concerted diplomatic pressure, with like-minded countries, to purge the UN of the loony fringe that has taken over its associate agencies.
In the 1980s, many countries withdrew from UNESCO after the body was converted into a gravy train for puerile radicals. India, unfortunately, egged on by Communist fellow-travellers in the court of Indira Gandhi, supported that endeavour. Something similar is happening is happening to bodies like UNDP.
It is time for corrective measures. It is time someone high up in New York is held accountable for the rubbish that is being circulated around the world using money paid by decent, upright citizens of many countries. We still need the UN but we do without the international body becoming the forum for private agendas