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Exclusive: Man behind India's success in UN speaks

Last updated on: October 15, 2010 16:21 IST

Exclusive: Man behind India's success in UN speaks


Hardeep Singh Puri, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the architect of India's stunning diplomatic victory this week, speaks to Aziz Haniffa.
That India would be elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council was never in doubt, particularly after the Asia Group endorsed New Delhi's candidature earlier this year.

But that India would be elected so overwhelmingly garnering 187 of the 190 votes in the 192-member General Assembly -- one country didn't show up for the vote, another didn't cast its vote in the three rounds, and one of the votes against India was cast in inadvertence -- was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

And this near-unanimous victory was due in major part to the indefatigable efforts of Hardeep Singh Puri, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

He lobbied assiduously for months and choreographed this win, including arranging a record number of meetings for India's External Affairs Minister S M Krishna when the EAM was in New York last month to doubly ensure that those countries who had promised to vote for India would do so in the secret ballot, and also to convince others who were waffling to cast their vote in Delhi's favour.

Krishna personally met with and spoke to foreign ministers of more than 123 countries. The reception that Puri hosted in Krishna's honour had more foreign ministers attending than any hosted by an Indian permanent representative in recent years.

This was also the first time -- as anyone could remember -- that Pakistan voted for India -- elected to the Security Council after 19 long years -- in its previous six terms when it served as a non-permanent member.

When India last ran against Japan for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council in October 1996, it suffered an ignominious defeat, securing a measly 40 votes to Japan's 142, with many countries that had pledged to vote for India going back on their word and using the secret ballot to sock it to New Delhi, bolstered by Tokyo's aid pledges and its then economic clout.

One of the first things Krishna did after India's whopping win, was to call Puri and congratulate him and his team.

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Image: Hardip Puri, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Photographs: John McIlwaine/UN

'We were latecomers, and we had to fight for every single vote'

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Puri spoke to's Aziz Haniffa from his office in New York.
I know it was expected, but was such an overwhelming victory on the cards?

Let me give you a perspective. First of all, some people are saying we were a sole candidate and that we were unopposed. That is not correct.

We entered the fray in December 2006, and at that point of time, there were two candidates.

One was Thailand and the other was Kazakhstan, and the important thing to bear in mind is that Kazakhstan had been a candidate already for 12 years.

So we were latecomers, and we had to fight for every single vote.

Kazakhstan withdrew in December 2009. But they only withdrew after they were convinced that India had the 128 votes that are required to get the two-thirds majority.

Now, after that, every candidate tries to reach out to every possible voter and yes, we put in a lot of work -- a lot of work was put in by our heads of mission -- and at the political level we had the support and in the process we were able to muster the votes required and we took it to as far as we could, which is 186 out of 190 in the final victory.

Was it expected?

I would not say it was expected in that sense.

I must say, I was very anxious. We had put in a lot of work, but we were pleasantly surprised.

Image: The General Assembly meeting where India, Colombia, Germany, Portugal, South Africa were elected
Photographs: Evan Schneider/UN
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'Thailand and Kazakhstan re-positioned their candidature'

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By the huge margin of victory?

Yes, by the margin, especially since you know India is also an aspirant for permanent membership. So, there is always that, you know, some people will say, 'Well, they are not ready for that one, they are only ready for this one.'

But there are complex factors, which work. But we are all extremely satisfied. I would leave it at that.

Did Thailand withdraw much earlier?

They withdrew also because of their own preoccupations and they have re-positioned their candidature.

Both these countries, Thailand and Kazakhstan, have re-positioned their candidature.

What does that mean?

They are contesting in another year.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was in New York for 10 days, I believe, meeting with an unprecedented number of his counterparts and other senior officials. How catalytic were these interactions toward India's huge success?

It was extremely important because in the high level segment there are a lot of all countries are represented either at the level of heads of State in government or by their foreign ministers.

Image: The Indian delegation receives congratulations in the General Assembly Hall, upon the country's election
Photographs: Evan Schneider/UN
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Why it was very important for Krishna to be in New York

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So you have an opportunity within the period of one week or so of not only conducting a large number of bilateral meetings but also running into your ministerial colleagues in different plurilateral meetings and on social occasions.

For instance, it is no secret that the number of bilateral meetings you can physically do are limited because time is just not available.

So you can do, say, N number of bilateral meetings, but then there are a number of plurilateral meetings.

Let me give you an example. The Commonwealth has a ministerial meeting and takes you into about 53 or so countries and you meet your counterparts from there.

Then, India is a member of IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), India is a member of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) combination, then the Group of 77 ministerial, the NAM (Non Aligned Movement) ministerial.

Then, we traditionally host a reception for the foreign ministers to which a large number of his counterparts came, which was very high this year, etc.

Now, because it is an election year, you make it a point to utilise each meeting -- sometimes you specifically raise the issue, particularly with those whose support has not been forthcoming. So, I would say, all in all, it's very important.

Image: Tellers stand ready to collect ballots for the election by the General Assembly of five new non-permanent members to the Security Souncil
Photographs: Evan Schneider/Reuters
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'We were not taking anything for granted'

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Despite the fact that you knew that you were going to win, Mr Krishna was here for 10 days and working the process.

Was this a very deliberate strategy? Were you not taking anything for granted?
We were not taking anything for granted. But let me put it this way. The fact that we were going to win became clear after we were endorsed by the Asian Group earlier in the year. But we were not taking anything for granted in any case.

But he (Krishna) would have been here in any case for the high-level segment, except that we utilised his presence and he was able to meet people in a more focused manner. That is the point.

You have a superb rapport with your counterpart from Pakistan -- you guys have interacted so well socially and all that kind of thing despite all of the back and forth rhetoric on Kashmir and everything else.

Was Pakistan's vote in favour of India expected or a pleasant surprise?

It was expected. First of all, let me go back. I have had excellent relations with the Pakistani PR (permanent representative), which is a fact. But I have also had excellent relations with Pakistani PRs in my other postings.

I firmly believe that irrespective of whatever differences we have on positions or perceptions on certain issues, it is in the interests of both countries that the PRs in multilateral venues work together. That I am very clear on, number one.

Image: External Affairs Minister S M Krishna addresses the General Assembly
Photographs: Devra Berkowitz/Reuters
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'I have absolutely no doubt that Pakistan voted for us'

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Number two, yes, Pakistan's vote was expected.

If you remember, when India was endorsed as the candidate of the Asia Group, 17 countries had spoken up and Pakistan was one of the countries then.

There is maturity and political wisdom in these things.

So, I had no doubts that the Pakistanis would vote for us.

What in effect happened was exactly in keeping with this thing, and I think one of the Indian journalists had reported this, which is correct.

I saw a comment from someone on a blog that he doesn't believe it. I mean, it was ostensibly a secret ballot, but, you know, everybody is sitting next to each other and it's not uncommon for people to -- I am not saying this has happened in this case -- see what their neighbours are doing and for them to show their neighbours and others what they are doing.

So, I have absolutely no doubt that Pakistan voted for us.

And there was this mysterious element. There are three votes, which we did not get.

One of them, it now transpires, was by a country whose representative didn't really realise as to what this ballot thing was and there is a suggestion that he was not aware that this was an African and Asian ballot combined.

So, he wrote his country's name on that. So, it was sheer inadvertence.

That country was neither a contestant, but that was one of those misunderstandings, and that is quite possible in situations when if you are not aware of democratic balloting and so on.

The other was a vote I think from a country because we were reciprocally tied up with other contestants.

And the third was a pure mysterious vote where (laughing) someone wrote Pakistan's name there and that put my Pakistani friends in a little of discomfiture because they had to go around telling everyone that's not true, we actually voted for India.

So, that's mischief.

Image: Hardeep Puri, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Pakistan envoy Abdullah Hussain Haroon
Photographs: Evan Schneider/Reuters
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'China had told us they would vote for India'

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Now, when there are 190, 192 countries, these things happen.

There is always one odd friend here and there who thinks that it is like having a vote for a country and then putting someone else's name there. So, that's understandable.

I believe the Chinese permanent representative immediately reached out to you and congratulated you?

China had told us at the level of when our President had visited there (Beijing), they would vote (for India).

But, frankly, there is a lot of predictability in these things.

We never had any doubt about the Chinese vote.

The P-5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council: The United States, Russia, China, France and Britain), have a system. Because of their position they have a deal amongst them that they don't tell people as to whom they are voting for.

So, they maintain that thing, but there are ways and means of them letting people know (about) their voting and this was done by the Chinese also.

With this massive victory and India's entry into the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, come tremendous responsibilities.

How does India intend to go about it, particularly on contentious issues like Iran sanctions, etc?

We are a responsible member of the international community and we will certainly strike a very fine balance between our interest and the requirements of the international community.

You mentioned Iran. You know what our position on the Iran nuclear issue is. You know what our position on sanctions is. We have absolutely no hesitation in working inside the Security Council on these positions.

Image: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at India's Permanent Mission. Also pictured, Hardeep Singh Puri
Photographs: Paulo Filgueiras/Reuters
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'Our stay on the Council could prove our credentials'

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Does this advent of India -- and by near unanimity -- in any way, give a fillip to Delhi's longstanding bid for a permanent Security Council seat?/P>

If your question is clinical, is one related to the other, I will have to give you a clinical answer, which is to say on the face of it, no.

But the fact of the matter is, that after a gap of 18, 19 years, the waffle which was going on in terms of the open-ended working group -- in discussions on Security Council reform -- that has now given way to inter-governmental negotiations, and we are in text-based negotiations.

So, there are two or three things which are important and which could have an impact.

One, our stay on the Council in the next year or two to give our partners a sense of confidence that we not only have the credentials that everybody acknowledges, but that we can provide a useful working environment and work with others on the more important and contentious issues.

The second issue is yes, when text-based negotiations progress, the fact that we are in the Council and the fact that we are pushing for reform, the two have a convergence at some level.

And, finally, what is the most important issue here is, no one is today questioning whether reform should take place or not.

The only issue is what form of reform, what kind of reform. Expansion in the Security Council, yes. But will that be an expansion in both categories -- permanent and non-permanent?

Most people think that is the case. There are a few countries, which are reluctant and a few countries that still have to speak up.

Image: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photographs: Eskinder Debebe/UN
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'It is going to be an interesting composition'

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I believe what we need to work out in the next few months is to see that everybody is really on the same page and then some outcome will come.

So, although the two are not related umbilicaly, as it were, there is a convergence, which becomes apparent after a while.

India and Brazil have been pressing for Security Council expansion more permanent members -- are together now as non-permanent members of the Security Council.

Is this of major significance and something that could be catalytic in making this specific Security Council reform happen?

It's not only India and Brazil, there is South Africa as part of IBSA, then India and Brazil along with Germany are part of the G-4.

Germany has also entered the Security Council. So, it's going to be an interesting composition.

The significance lies in the fact that these are countries, which are -- I wouldn't say likeminded only, but these are countries, which have been asking for reform.

But the reform issue is not being discussed inside the Security Council. It's being discussed in groups where the members of the Security Council are important players.

So, I suppose it helps, and greater coordination between countries like Brazil, South Africa and India, will be important in pushing this forward.

Finally, on a personal level in terms of your diplomatic career, is this kind of the highlight -- the coup de grace, if you will -- thus far?

I have had a very interesting and chequered career going back 37 years. I have negotiated with the heads of militant groups, I've done many interesting things.

This is certainly one of the more interesting things I am involved in, yes.

Image: Flags of member nations fly at the United Nations
Photographs: Andrea Brizzi/UN
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