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Sushma Swaraj’s missed chance

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

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 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.

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.

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.

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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