Why Sushma Swaraj’s UN speech was a missed chance

Instead of presenting an internationalist vision at the UN General Assembly, Swaraj played to the gallery at home.

ByUrvashi Sarkar
Why Sushma Swaraj’s UN speech was a missed chance
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The “unprecedented economic and social transformation” initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi through various schemes and the “deceit and deception” of Pakistan dominated external affairs minister Sushma’s Swaraj’s address to the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 29.

Swaraj’s speech appeared to be delivered with an eye on India’s upcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Interestingly, she projected a vision for the country for 2022, when India would observe India’s 75th year of independence. Her statement published on the Ministry of External Affairs website said, “In 2022, free India will be 75 years old. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to build a New India by then.” Can this be interpreted as a signal of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s confidence that it will outlive the 2019 general elections and Narendra Modi might continue as PM, or as another rhetorical claim by the BJP government?

Schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana, Ayushman Bharat, homes for the poor, Skill Development, Mudra, Ujjawala, Maternity Benefits Scheme and One Sun, One Grid found mention in Swaraj’s address. She reserved special words of criticism for Pakistan, referring to it as a spawning ground for terrorism and termed it an “expert in trying to mask malevolence with verbal duplicity”. Accusing Pakistan of giving safe harbour to Osama bin Laden and committing to terrorism as an instrument of state policy, Swaraj noted that Hafiz Saeed roamed the streets of Pakistan with impunity. She also dismissed allegations that India was sabotaging peace talks with Pakistan and rejected charges of human rights violations by India.

The pattern of Swaraj’s speeches, who has been representing India at the UNGA since 2015, is roughly similar—highlighting the Prime Minister’s schemes, terrorism and climate change, criticism of Pakistan and reform of the United Nations. This year, however, the PR on Modi’s programmes was raised a few notches with the incorporation of language like “world’s largest financial inclusion scheme”, “world’s biggest health insurance programme”, “largest housing scheme in the world” and “world’s biggest exercise in poverty elimination and social transformation”.

The Indian media largely focused on Swaraj’s upping the ante against Pakistan. Hindustan Times ran a piece titled “Pak lies, glorifies killers: Sushma in UN tough talk”. India Today focused on “Sushma Swaraj’s fierce attack on Pakistan at UN” while The Times of India stuck with “Sushma Swaraj at UN: No talks with Pakistan amid terror”. The piece in The Hindu was titled “Pak. duplicity key hurdle in fight against terror” and Indian Express ran the headline “Strongly defending calling off talks: At UN, Sushma Swaraj tears into Pakistan ‘malevolence, verbal duplicity’”.  News 18 focused on the aftermath of Swaraj’s piece and published a piece titled “Cornered by Sushma Swaraj, Pakistan goes after RSS and Yogi Adityanath at UN”. Times Now ran the hashtag #SushmavsPak.   

On a Whatsapp group of Indian journalists covering the UNGA, a mini-debate was triggered when a journalist shared a news report about Pakistan’s foreign minister SM Qureshi’s “multi-pronged attack on India”. Another journalist objected to the report, asking whether this was an Indian or Pakistani group and demanded that Indian journalists think of “our country first” and that “nationalist approach should be appreciated”. In response, a third journalist argued that “news is news and should not be twisted to suit narrow and false nationalism”. The exchange was brief and non-confrontational, but it provided a glimpse of the lines along which India media has become divided and the pressure to stick to nationalist narratives.

NDTV, The Times of India and DNA were some of the media houses which focused on Swaraj’s statements on the need for UN reform. While Swaraj has always referred to the issue of UN reform—especially of the Security Council—in her previous speeches at the General Assembly, last week’s critique was especially sharp. She said, “Step by step, the importance, influence, respect and value of this institution is beginning to ebb. If 2030 is the agreed deadline for delivery on Sustainable Development Goals, then it also marks hundred years of the lapse of the League into irrelevance. The League went into meltdown because it was unwilling to accept the need for reform. We must not make that mistake … The United Nations must accept that it needs fundamental reform. Reform must begin today; tomorrow could be too late. If the UN is ineffective, the whole concept of multilateralism will collapse.”

While India has long been frustrated about the failure of the UN Security Council to accommodate emerging powers like itself, the biggest attack in recent times on multilateralism and the UN has been through US President Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from the Human Rights Council and has severely cut funding to UN bodies. And though India has drawn closer to the US than ever before, Swaraj acknowledged that in the area of climate change, developed nations would have to part with financial and technical resources since underdeveloped and developing nations were the worst victims of climate change.

While references to solidarity with the developing world that used to appear in previous speeches of India at the UNGA have not entirely disappeared, the focus is more on demands from developed countries for technology transfer and climate finance, rather than on asserting actual unity with developing countries.

Though the UN is an international multilateral body, countries frequently use the platform to articulate views that essentially cater to domestic audiences and rail against opponents. Swaraj behaved no differently.

It’s unsurprising since India is months away from a crucial general election. However, considering that India has long sought a role in the world for itself, the UNGA would have been a good place to start outlining an internationalist vision. For example, India’s claim to a seat the UN Security Council needs to be substantiated with an explanation on why India is deserving of it and what it will do differently to reduce major crises and conflicts. But Swaraj’s speeches have woefully fallen short of the target in this regard, display an inwardness and have only ended up playing to the gallery and press at home.

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