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Exclusive! Obama may back India's permanent UNSC membership bid

By Aziz Haniffa
October 15, 2010 18:32 IST
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US officials want President Barack Obama to support India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, telling him it could make his India visit truly historic, reveals Aziz Haniffa.

Unrelated to India being elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council by a landslide, there has been a critical mass developing among senior administration officials that President Barack Obama announce America's support for India for a permanent UNSC seat, preferably during his address to a joint session of Parliament during his visit next month.

Sources told that the argument put forth by these officials was that the US had everything to gain and nothing to lose by making such an endorsement.

The UNSC reform issue, the officials argued, including the expansion of the permanent members, would not come for months and could take even years.

But an explicit and unambiguous show of support for New Delhi, the officials pointed out, would have a major positive impact on both the Indian government and -- more importantly -- the people of India.

The officials contend that even if ultimately the likes of China and Pakistan and/or other members succeed in torpedoing India's bid if and when a decision is taken to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council, the US can always say that it did support India -- goodwill that could be banked on a permanent basis.

According to the sources, these administration officials arguing for Obama to make such an endorsement were of the view that this could be the "real big issue" that could leave Obama's imprimatur on the visit and make it transformational instead of merely symbolic -- as the president has made clear he wants it.

It would also forever be his legacy in India as the US president who supported India's candidacy unambiguously, these officials argued.

At the same time, these officials were also working to ensure that the tangible deliverables like the removal of India from the Entities List -- a pet peeve of New Delhi -- could be worked out before Obama takes off from Andrews Air Force Base on Air Force One, November 4.

Sources acknowledged that the US and Indian officials were also working on several other possible agreements to be announced during Obama's visit.

These include cooperation in the Global Commons like solar energy in space and a possible US-India global venture on open democracy, e-governance and democratisation of information where Obama's Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra was the point man and was in contact with senior Indian information technology specialists following his recent visit to India.

Administration and diplomatic sources also disclosed that India's Deputy National Security Adviser Alok Prasad will visit Washington, DC, to move the ball forward in anticipation of Obama's visit.

But while all of these were unquestionably big ticket items, the sources said, they would pale in comparison and not capture India's imagination as would an Obama endorsement of India's candidacy for the Security Council.

The administration officials who were strongly urging this show of support, the sources said, were reinforcing their arguments by making the case that such an endorsement of India's bid would elicit overwhelming bipartisan consensus in the US Congress and be much more spontaneous than the support garnered for the US-India nuclear deal where intense lobbying and arm-twisting was necessary.

One reason for some of these senior officials urging Obama to support India, the sources said, were the battery of Indian officials including National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon who visited Washington, DC, during the past two weeks hammering away on this issue of India's eligibility to be a permanent member.

The Indian officials seized upon recent statements by the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Under Secretary of State William Burns and others, who have gone further than any previous US administration in acknowledging India's credentials for a permanent Security Council seat, but stopped just short of a full-scale endorsement.

Recently, when asked Burns if apprehensions that China would strongly object were holding the US back from supporting India's candidacy, he denied that there was any such factor.

A quintessential diplomat, he said, "As we look ahead to reform of the UN Security Council and the issue of expansion of Security Council membership in the future, it's a very important issue. We clearly see India as a central player in that consideration."

Some other officials, however, have acknowledged that there certainly is the China factor.

Other detractors have warned that Pakistan's paranoia would be exacerbated, and more so if Obama made the endorsement during his trip in India, since Islamabad already feels slighted that the US president is not visiting Pakistan.

Last week, State Department Spokesman Phillip J Crowley was asked if Obama would endorse India's bid for a permanent Security Council seat during his visit.

Crowley stuck to the script, saying, "We are well aware of India's aspirations to play a more significant, you know, global role."

"We have welcomed that expanded role by India both on regional issues and global issues," he said. "We will work within the UN and within the Security Council because, you know, we recognise that there are a number of countries in the world that have those same aspirations. We are committed to work constructively on UN reform."

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was in Washington, DC, for the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings earlier this month. Following his meeting with Secretary Clinton -- where Obama's visit was discussed -- Mukherjee was asked if US support for India's candidacy would be on the agenda when Obama meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"No," Mukherjee said, "I cannot say what will be on the agenda between the president and the prime minister. These are being worked out. But our position has been stated for quite some time. The prime minister discussed this with the president of the United States of America on earlier occasions also... I feel that when the reforms in the UN will take place and the Security Council will be expanded regarding permanent membership category, India will have a place. I hope so. But, first, it is to be expanded."

When National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon was asked if he had received any commitments from US officials, he said, "How the US chooses to do it, when the US chooses to do it, is really for the US to decide... I don't think we are shy in any way, letting it be known what we expect."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC