The Indian Way at the UNSC: Analyzing India’s Strategy at the UN Security Council

Written by Prathit Singh

Research Associate at Law & Order

The Heritage School, Kolkata

Source: Atlantic Council

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.



The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been one of the most powerful organs of the United Nations. The body is mandated to deal directly with issues of maintaining peace and security around the world. The core responsibility of the United Nations –– to protect the succeeding generations for the scourge of war –– is mostly shouldered by the Security Council. However, with its confined structure of restricted membership, the provision of exclusive veto power with its permanent members, and its empowerment as the only body with the ability to sanction member states, the UNSC has often been a ground for demonstration of hegemony and portrayal of power politics. India has shared an estranged relationship with the Security Council. From adopting what Manu Bhagwan (2018) referred to as an initial ‘Grand Strategy’ under the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, aimed at reframing international relations altogether and championing the Asian cause in the UNSC, to walking out of Council debate to imply the degraded relevance of the body (Kochanek, 1980). India’s role in the Security Council has seen massive changes over time. With the recent re-election of India to the UN Security Council and the changing trail that India has followed over time in the Security Council, there is a need to look upon the constructive contributions that India has made to the UNSC while at the same time there is also a need to analyze the challenges and hindrances to Indian constructivism.

A Historical Perspective on India at the UNSC: An (Un)warm Welcome

While India played a key role in the conception of the United Nations by playing a major role in its birth and establishment (Bhagwan, 2018), its position in the UN Security Council was not received warmly.

As one of the original members of the United Nations, India never hesitated in stepping up as a sole voice for the developing and Third World nations.

Ranging from acting as a prime mediator between the US and the USSR while debating the covenants of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and finally driving consensus between the two powers, to the Indian Prime Minister Nehru envisioning ‘one world’ where the UN could develop into a form of world government based on the global charter of rights and freedom and principles of federalism (Bhagwan, 2018), India heralded its diplomatic efforts to quickly rise as a constructive peacemaker from the Third World. This period of prestige, however, did not last long and was soon shattered by India’s controversial stances upheld in the Security Council. India’s first major brush with the Security Council occurred in 1948 when with a positive expectation of a favorable outcome; Prime Minister Nehru decided to take up Kashmir to the UNSC. To Nehru’s disappointment, the West started treating the matter as a dispute between two states rather than an invasion of one state by another. This was enough for India to shatter its dream of ‘one world’ and conclude that the decisions of the Security Council were mere matters of political and national interests (Mukherjee & Malone, 2013). It also acted as a deathblow to the constructive image India had built before the world through its actions in other UN organs.

However, the UNSC’s response to Kashmir was not the ultimate end of India’s constructive policies. Soon in 1950, India was elected to its first term in the Security Council which coincided with the Korean War.

India again showed its capacity as a peacemaker by sending an ambulance force for humanitarian assistance in the war; instead of an armed one and later by supervising the reparation of prisoners of war and refugees (Mukherjee & Malone, 2013).

India tried to stand as a champion of peaceful resolution of conflict again by contributing various troops, senior military commanders, and humanitarian assistance to UN Operations in Asia and Africa (Mukherjee & Malone, 2013). However, this instance of India’s constructive tendency was also short-lived. In 1961, India had once again resorted to force to seize Goa from Portugal, as a result of which it had to seek the shield of a Soviet veto against a resolution by Western powers. This was followed by India’s military confrontation with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965, both of which were seen with skepticism by the international community. The events also forced India to ally with power blocs, against its much-championed policy of non-alignment during the cold-war. By then, India’s moral legitimacy as a peacemaker was almost shattered. The Indian position in the world and also vis-a-vis the United Nations was pushed to what scholars like Sisir Gupta (1981) theorized as the foreign policy of the third world saying, “the foreign policy preoccupations of many of the Third World states are more varied than one seeking structural changes in world politics”.

Emboldening a Rise

Over the course of all the setbacks, India, however, did not shun its responsibility of voicing the oppressed nations in the course of following its policy of ‘non-alignment’ by not joining any of the two major blocs during the cold war and fighting against colonialism and imperialism. Time and again it raised its voice in the Security Council for bringing up the Palestinian cause, justifying its actions for the Bangladeshi cause and sharply criticizing the apartheid. At times, the Security Council also stood as a major hindrance in the way of India’s development and rise. India’s rise as the first non-P5 member to conduct nuclear tests followed by the UNSC’s condemnation of the act was an instance of this. India also continued its major contribution towards peacekeeping and soon became the backbone of UN peacekeeping (Singh, 2013).

India was also bought to criticism owing to its abstentions in the Council over decisions concerning humanitarian intervention in Libya and Syria; but it stood brave to counter the Western-led criticism sharply, by implying that the Western powers did not pursue the same tactics in the humanitarian crises in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s because these countries lacked oil resources (Dikshit, 2012).

With all these developments also came India’s claim to a permanent seat and demand for reform in the order of the UNSC.

Steering Reforms

Despite all the challenges and criticism that India’s policy at the Security Council was met with, India remained a core reformist of the UNSC. In fact, India was seen as a force that always steered for positive reform against the hegemony of the United States. After the Cold War ended, India, while grieving the demise of a close ally, moved ahead to act as a voice of reason, calm, and moderation in the face of the West's increasing enthusiasm for humanitarian intervention. (Mukherjee, 2013). An instance of the reflection of this voice was India’s demand to scrutinize the role of UN Peacekeeping. While being a major contributor to the force, India repeatedly voiced its argument against the manner in which the mandates of the missions of the UN Peacekeeping operations were expanded to make excessive use of Chapter VII of the UN Charter dealing with coercive measures, despite the availability of diplomatic options. India also resented the use of the Peacekeeping forces in activities relating to nation-building and socio-economic development (Mukherjee, 2013). In a speech made at the UNSC in August 2011, Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Ambassador to the UN, summarized the problem saying, “Ambitious agendas are not being backed with the financial, operational, and logistical resources. This lack of resources tells on the operational effectiveness of peacekeeping and casts a shadow on the credibility of the council’s mandates” (PMUN, 2013). Further, India has also promoted better transparency, efficiency, and responsiveness in the UNSC. In lieu of India’s efforts, important documents pertaining to the decision-making process within the UNSC were disclosed and closed-door meetings from which member states were often excluded were curbed. India has also pushed for greater consultations with member states regardless of their membership in the Security Council if the decision concerns them (Mukherjee, 2013).

Another instance of India’s reformation for the UNSC is its demand for structural reform within the body, not just for gaining a permanent seat in the Council but also for a wider expansion of the power of the non-permanent members of the Council.

Having been a prominent member of alliances seeking reforms in the Council including the G4 and L.69, India along with its G4 partners has even submitted a united policy position to the Intergovernmental Negotiations'(IGN) Framework document calling for an expanded Security Council with 25-26 members, with 11 permanent seats and 14 or 15 non-permanent seats (Rattray). However, the Security Council reform has yet again been an incomplete quest for India and its partners of G4 and L.69 Group of nations with hardly any written literature for its execution on the UN table for years (Thakker, 2018).

The Road Ahead

With India’s re-entry in the Security Council for the term starting in 2021, and with the world dynamics showing a major change since India’s last election to the non-permanent seat, the upcoming Security Council session can be a decisive one for the world community. At the head of India’s priorities in the Security Council, its bid for Security Council reforms, multilateralism, and terrorism still stand. While as an addition to its priority, India has included Artificial Intelligence for ‘building resilient communities’ and ‘enhancing the ease of living’ in its list too (MEA, 2020). However, what remains to be seen are the strategies that India executes in the face of a divided P5. Will India still stand to its image of the broker of peace or will it delve into power politics between the two new rivals –– US and China. Will the present scenario in Asia allow India to go ahead with its strategies for reform? These are intriguing questions, the answers to which remain to be sought over time.



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