It’s a shame that Indian MPs are no longer being sent to the UN

The practice of sending parliamentary delegations presented a unique opportunity for capacity-building and engaging with the UN, as also to get an insider’s view of diplomacy. But the BJP has worked to short-circut this since coming to power in 2014

More than ten Octobers ago, as a newly elected MP, I had the good fortune of being selected by my party to be a part of the parliamentary delegation to attend the 67th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in 2012. All members of the delegation attend and speak for India. These sessions are held in committee rooms, which are more like large conference rooms near the main hall where the UNGA convenes. However, through a quirk of fate (it is too long a story to tell), I was informed that in addition to the statements I will be making in the committee rooms, I would also be addressing the UN General Assembly. I did so on October 22, 2012. It was certainly one of the biggest days of my life. I took the opportunity to touch upon an array of topics, including gender equity, infant mortality, climate change and poverty.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meets every year between September and December. The president-elect of the General Assembly suggests a theme of global concern to be discussed. Every year, an Indian parliamentary delegation is also chosen to be a part of the gathering, addressing the annual session. The practice of an all-party delegation of members of the Indian Parliament visiting New York during the first few months of the General Assembly session is believed to have been initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, our first PM and a fervent advocate of internationalism.

Generally, no other country follows this practice of sending their MPs to these sessions. For India, this is a unique opportunity for capacity-building and engaging with the UN, as also to get an insider’s view of diplomacy.

Many of my colleagues who have been elected to Parliament in recent years have not enjoyed the same good fortune. No fault of theirs. Soon after the BJP government came to power in 2014, they started working on ways to short-circuit this practice of sending Indian parliamentary delegations to the UN. A delegation went in 2015. In the following years, this convention has been covertly subverted.

Here’s what my fellow parliamentarians have to say on this subject:

P Chidambaram: “In all democracies, the executive and the legislature share the responsibility of governance. That is why parliamentary delegations are as important as minister-led delegations. Continuing the tradition, in all its 10 years, the UPA government sent an all-party delegation of MPs to the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. After the advent of Mr Modi, a delegation was sent in two of the five years of Modi-1. Under Modi-2, the practice has been totally stopped. This shows the Modi government’s utter contempt for Parliament and its important functions. What we are witnessing is the centralisation of power in one person. In due course, all institutions will be devalued and destroyed.”

Shashi Tharoor: “This was an excellent practice that showcased India’s democracy to the world. For MPs from different parties to sit behind the India nameplate and speak for the nation was a reminder that even as politics divided us at home, we were united in pursuance of the national interest abroad. There is a long-standing principle in India that our partisan political disagreements stop at the water’s edge: Abroad, we are Indians first and always. This was why, from the inception of the parliamentary standing committee system, the chairperson of the external affairs committee was always an Opposition MP, and why the Opposition MPs featured prominently in the UN delegations annually. The BJP abandoned both practices — they have not sent an MP for many years and assumed the committee chairmanship for their own party in 2019. The degrading of our democratic culture has gone that far.”

Ram Gopal Yadav: “I went twice as a member of the Indian delegation — 2011 and 2015. The ruling dispensation’s discontinuation of sending an all-party delegation to the United Nations General Assembly is an external representation of what they portray internally within the country: A deep fear of conversation with those who do not think alike. The UNGA is the largest representation of such a conversation. The BJP’s discontinuation of the Indian tradition of sending an all-party delegation is reflective of the dictatorial values they stand for. There is no room for opinion with the BJP, neither at home, nor abroad. While the prime minister avoids press conferences in the country, the government avoids international conferences abroad. This discontinuation truly shows how far they are willing to go to avoid freedom of expression and thought.”

Priyanka Chaturvedi: “Since the time when Jawaharlal Nehru was the PM, India had been sending a delegation of MPs, both treasury and the Opposition to the United Nations to engage in discussions at the international level and represent the vision of crores of people of the nation. Participation of an elected representative, especially one from the Opposition, at such a level, emboldens not only the nation but also the ideals of a healthy democracy.”

Manoj Kumar Jha: “All avenues of engagement with the Opposition have been closed. This does reflect a break in foreign policy. It is also a break with the BJP’s own tradition. Perhaps, the government is too beleaguered to engage with multilateralism. Besides, this government feels that bilateral fixing is more productive than multilateralism. Their limited view of international relations doesn’t allow them the depth needed to understand multilateralism.”

For all practical purposes, parliamentary delegations from India are not being sent anymore to the UN. What a shame!

[This article was also published in The Indian Express | Friday, October 27, 2023]