When History Came Full Circle: How Modi Raj Outmanoeuvred British Raj At The ICJ


History has come full circle with India, once a British colony, beating its former colonial master at an important world forum. Britain lost a seat to India on the International Court of Justice on Monday for the first time since the tribunal started work in 1946, a setback seen by some diplomats and commentators as the result of waning international influence following its vote to leave the European Union.

India’s Dalveer Bhandari and Britain’s Christopher Greenwood were forced into a runoff for the fifth seat because Greenwood had the required majority in the 15-member Security Council while Bhandari topped the vote in the 193-member General Assembly.

Bhandari’s election is symbolic of the shifting global order where emerging economies are growing more powerful and big powers are declining.

United Kingdom, once a world power that ruled India, has now been pushed aside by an emerging India. Fuelled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relentless foreign policy push, India has emerged as a significant actor on the world stage.

India has taken the lead in climate talks over the past year, with Modi himself being at the centre of talks with other world leaders to affirm India’s commitment to protecting the environment and “going above and beyond” the Paris agreement. Modi assured other leaders that despite the Donald Trump-led US pulling out of the deal, India would uphold its commitment.

Modi’s relentless pursuit to get India recognised on the world stage has resulted in India gaining pre-eminence in Asia, which has been dominated by its hostile neighbour China. The US has started referring to the erstwhile Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific in recent times, a sign of India’s growing importance for western powers strategically, geographically and diplomatically.

The US’s quest to quell Chinese domination in the South China Sea also coincided with Modi’s aim of stopping a Chinese monopoly in Asia, and a trade quadrilateral between India, US, Japan and Australia might be the result of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Modi was also firm in his stance that India would not support the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), to the extent that there was not a single Indian representative at the BRI Summit held in Beijing earlier this year. An American think tank recently told the US Congress that Modi was the only world statesman to stand up to China.

The Prime Minister has often been criticised for the number of days he spends outside the country, but that is the dirty work that is put in to ensure alliances on bigger stages.

The UK has been receding from the global power map for past several years. This is the second time it has been humiliated at the UN this year, with signs suggesting that some EU nations no longer feel the need to automatically support a country that was once at the forefront of European politics. In a separate vote at the UN general assembly last June, the UK was defeated 94-15 when a Mauritian-backed resolution questioning the disputed legal status of the UK’s hold over the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean was referred to the ICJ.

The fight for British relevance only became tougher after the country voted to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum, a move that left a widespread impact on the British economy. The pound took a beating after the Brexit vote, falling dramatically after the vote last year. It has since been trading around 15 per cent lower in comparison with the dollar and 12 per cent lower compared to the Euro, than the levels before the vote.

Britain’s second quarter economic growth figures in 2017, showed consumer spending slumping to a two-and-a-half year low of just 0.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter. And for a consumer-driven economy like the UK, that is not good news.

Brexit would also possibly mean that other big European cities such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris could poach away London’s status of being the financial heartland of Europe. Britain is heading into the great unknown. Economic confidence and business investment intentions are near all-times lows, and perhaps damningly, the EU seems intent on ensuring that there is no “favourable Brexit” for the UK.

In recent international conflicts, such as the ones in Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Yemen, the UK has hardly been mentioned as a player, with its European counterparts in France and Germany seeming to surpass the UK’s importance as a world power.

In such a scenario for the UK, the last thing it needed was to “lose” on an international stage to a country that it once colonised. In 70 years, the British have gone from being the colonisers to being diplomatically second best to one of its own former colonies. The sun may have set on the British empire long back, but the bigger concern for Britain now is the imminent cold, dark night that stares it in the face.

The ICJ victory will embolden Modi to up his bets on the global stage, making India a significant player in the emerging world order.

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