The Group of 20 Summit, hosted by India earlier this month, couldn’t have gone better for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His pledge to make the African Union a permanent member became reality. And under his leadership, the fractured grouping signed off on a final statement. It was seen as a foreign policy triumph for Modi and set the tone for India as a great emerging power.
Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was expected to seize on India’s geopolitical high in his speech at the United Nations on Tuesday. But circumstances have changed — quite abruptly — and India comes to the General Assembly podium with a diplomatic mess on its hands.
On Monday, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau made a shocking claim: India may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh Canadian citizen in a Vancouver suburb in June.
Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of links to New Delhi, which India angrily rejected as absurd. It has been a free fall since: Each expelled a diplomat, India suspended visas for Canadians, and Ottawa said it may reduce consulate staff over safety concerns. Ties between the two once-close countries have sunk to their lowest point in years.
“In the immediate term, this will bring New Delhi back down to Earth. It has a crisis that it needs to work through, quickly but carefully,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.
TENSIONS WERE ALREADY SIMMERING
On the last day of the G20 summit, Trudeau posed and smiled with Modi as world leaders paid respects at Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Behind the scenes though, tensions were high.
Trudeau skipped an official dinner hosted by the Indian president, and local media reported he was snubbed by Modi when he got a quick “pull aside” instead of a bilateral meeting. To make things worse, a flight snag saw him stranded in New Delhi for 36 hours. Finally back in Canada, Trudeau said he had raised the allegations with Modi at the G20.
As India heads to the United Nations, the allegations have “thrown cold water on India’s G20 achievements,” said Happymon Jacob, founder of the New Delhi-based Council for Strategic and Defense Research.
India has long sought greater recognition at the United Nations. For decades, it has eyed a permanent seat at the Security Council, one of the world’s most prestigious high tables. But it has also been critical of the global forum, partly because it wants more representation that’s in line with its rising soft power.
“The U.N. Security Council, which is the core of the United Nations system, is a family photo of the victors of the Second World War plus China,” Jacob said. India believes “it simply does not reflect the demographic, economic and geopolitical realities of today,” he added. Others in the elite group include France, Russia, Britain and the United States.
In April, Jaishankar said India, the world’s most populous country with the fastest growing economy among major nations, couldn’t be ignored for too long. The U.N. Security Council, he said, “will be compelled to provide permanent membership.”
The United States, Britain and India’s Cold War-era ally Russia have voiced support for its permanent membership over the years. But U.N. bureaucracy has stopped the council from expanding. And even if that changes, China — India’s neighbor and regional rival — would likely block a request.
INSTEAD OF THE UN, INDIA MAKES SOME END RUNS
Kept out of the U.N.’s most important body, Modi has made sure that his country is smack at the center of a tangled web of global politics. On one hand, New Delhi is part of the Quad and the G20, seen as mostly Western groups. On the other, it wants to expand its influence in the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia and China dominate.
The deft juggling of the West and the rest has come to define India’s multipolar foreign policy.
Its diplomatic sway has only grown over its reluctance to condemn Russia for its war in Ukraine, a stance that resonated among many developing countries that have also been neutral. And the West, which sees an ascendant India as crucial to countering China, has stepped up ties with Modi. By doing so, it looks past concerns of democratic backsliding under his government.
In the immediate aftermath, the first reaction from Canada’s Western allies — including its biggest one, the United States — was tepid. But as the row deepens, the question likely worrying Indian officials is this: Will the recent international fiasco jeopardize its surging ties with the West?
After an initial muted response, the White House has intensified its concerns. “There’s not some special exemption you get for actions like this, regardless of the country,” security adviser Jake Sullivan said. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was deeply concerned about the allegations and that “it would be important that India work with the Canadians on this investigation.”
While there’s been no public evidence, a Canadian official told The Associated Press that the allegation of India’s involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist, is based on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada — including intelligence provided by a major ally. On Friday, the U.S. ambassador to Canada confirmed this, saying information shared by the intelligence-sharing ‘Five Eyes’ alliance helped link India to the assassination.
At the United Nations, where he held a news conference and meetings but will not be speaking for his nation on Tuesday, Trudeau told reporters that he doesn’t want to cause problems but said his decision was not made lightly. Canada, he said, had to stand up for the rule of law and protect its citizens.
For New Delhi, the U.N. meeting may present a possible opportunity. Indian and Canadian diplomats could meet on the sidelines to try to lower temperatures with a potential assist from Washington, Kugelman said. Canada’s delegation chair, Robert Rae, is delivering the country’s remarks 10 spots after India.
Jaishankar could also hold face-to-face meetings with other key partners to minimize the damage. Since arriving, he’s held chats with ministers from Australia, Japan and Britain.
“Let’s be clear: We’re not going to see foreign leaders avoid or isolate Jaishankar at the U.N. General Assembly,” Kugelman said.
But it could also lead to more fireworks if they bring the spat to the U.N. podium and the global audience of leaders it tends to command. Ultimately, though, India “doesn’t want the Canada row to be a sideshow here, and especially not one that moves to the center stage,” Kugelman said. “That would take attention away from the achievements it hopes to publicize on one of the world’s biggest global platforms.”