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Why Justice Dalveer Bhandari’s victory is bigger than commonly perceived

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On October 21, 1996, during the 51st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the United Nations Security Council election were held, where India suffered a monumental diplomatic disaster, losing a non-permanent seat to Japan by 40-142 votes. This was a surprise shock considering the self-perceived image of India being a benign power in all the Cold War years.

However, tables were gradually turned when in 2010, after 19 years India won the election for non-permanent membership in UNGA after securing 187/191 votes. The wheel turned full circle when recently Justice Dalveer Bhandari was elected as a judge in ICJ (International Court of Justice) for 2018-27 defeating UK’s Christopher Greenwood after 11 rounds of gruesome ballots in both UNGA and the UNSC.

The ICJ headquartered in Hague, is the judicial branch of the United Nations. The ICJ has 15 judges for nine-year term whereby five judges are elected every three years. No two judges may be nationals of the same country. A judge can be dismissed only by a unanimous vote of the other members of the Court, and the judges are expected to remain neutral when disputes irrespective of nations in the party of dispute including their own nation.

This victory was monumental, as for the first time, the informal understanding that Asia to have three judges in the ICJ was breached with India occupying the 4th spot displacing allocation generally reserved for a Western European nation. Also, this would be the first time when any P5 nation will not be represented in the ICJ since its inception in 1945. Moreover, the UK for the first time will not be having any of its judges in the ICJ. Further, this is the first time that any sitting judge has defeated another sitting judge (UK’s Christopher Greenwood was already in ICJ for nine years).

The ferocious diplomatic battle went for 11 ballot rounds where India received 121 votes in the UNGA (almost 2/3rd), and the UK won 9/15 votes in the UNSC. This led to a stalemate as ICJ judge is needed to be elected by a majority in both the UNGA and the UNSC. Finally, UK decided to withdraw its candidature in the 12th round, and India won 182/193 votes in UNGA, and 15/15 in UNSC making way for Justice Bhandari in ICJ.

This withdrawal of UK was not on moral grounds but was purely a strategic calculation. As reported by The Hindu, “After India raised the issue with Trump administration, it suspended its campaign for British nominee.” This was in reference to UK’s pursuit of an unprecedented “joint conference” mechanism where three UNGA members and three UNSC members will decide on next ICJ judge.

The US rejected UK’s demand for suspending the ongoing voting in the UNGA and UNSC after New Delhi approached Washington at the highest diplomatic level. To avoid further embarrassment, the UK decided to withdraw its candidate from further voting rounds and gracefully declared that, “If the UK could not win in this run-off, then we are pleased that it is a close friend like India that has done so instead. We will continue to cooperate closely with India, here in the United Nations and globally.” Also, it was becoming morally untenable for the UK to ignore the voice of almost 2/3rd of nations who had already voted in India’s favour.

This comes as a huge blow for the UK after Brexit, when recently Paris and Amsterdam won the authority to host key EU agencies namely the European Banking Authority (EBA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) respectively which were previously housed in London.

The reason for this victory is majorly due to India’s assertive diplomacy, where it is not ideologically inhibited to break old shibboleths, India’s diplomatic ideals and declining power of 19th-century superpower UK.

India’s foreign policy after PM Modi’s coming to power has adapted greater pragmatism and developed self-assurance to undertake calculated risks. The Modi doctrine could be well established as comfortably out of the vestiges of colonialism by the pursuit of hard-nosed diplomacy. India is no longer refraining itself from pursuing its national interests and has thus been willing to ensure New Delhi’s place at global high tide. As scholar Brahma Chellaney puts it, “the doctrinaire nonalignment of cold war era is gradually transformed to geopolitical pragmatism.”

Moreover, India has been historically been committed to Global Institutions and their rulings. India believes in global harmony and rule-based order owing to its historical principles of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, “Sarva Dhamma Sambhav”, “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina”. India also gains huge soft power and diplomatic capital by its active role in UN Peacekeeping forces where India is a major contributor. India’s outreach to Africa, Latin America, Pacific islands through channels of economic diplomacy and soft power sources like Yoga, Gandhi and Bollywood adds to Indian power, especially in the UNGA.

Also, UK is no more a force, as it previously used to be. Prime Minister Theresa May, is already going through rough and patchy waters owing to Brexit negotiations and disastrous election results in 2017. The EU seems comfortably placed even without the UK, and recent elections in France, Germany, Netherlands has put Pro-European leaders at the forefront of EU. The UK is no longer a great economy, and possibly in a year or two, the Indian economy will pass two P5 nations UK & France.

This victory has huge significance for India, as it acts as a shot in the arm for its UNSC candidature in future. This needs to be seen in context as in India also defeated another P5 nation, China, in 2011 when it was elected to the United Nations’ Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), beating the Middle Kingdom in a direct fight for the lone seat from the Asia-Pacific region. These victories depict the newly emerging global order which no longer accepts the post-World War II status-quo and wishes for change suited as per time and needs.

The world has begun to see New Delhi as a global power and a ‘balancer’ whose rise seems imminent. A recent Morgan Stanley report stated that India would become a $6 trillion economy by 2026-27, becoming third largest economy within the next decade.

Ignoring a major economy and the third largest military power will become harder for P5 nations in future. This victory, however, must not slow us down, and India must continue to engage itself both politically and economically in global affairs with the aim of becoming not just an effective ‘veto player’ but also a successful ‘agenda setter.’

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