India’s loss at UNESCO Board Poll

3 Min
India’s loss at UNESCO Board Poll

by Tushar Charan

On November 24, India suffered a rare defeat at the hands of Pakistan in a UN body poll with a margin that was more galling than the loss of vice chair at Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

While there seems to have been no official reaction to the UNESCO poll defeat, the ministries of external affairs and human resource development are believed to be assessing the reason for the unexpected humiliation. These are the two ministries that appoint India’s head at UNESCO. 

It is quite possible that the finding of this probe by the government will be suppressed because it is certain to touch upon diplomatic failure by India. An additional, perhaps a more important reason, for keeping the probe under wraps is the fact that the head of the Indian mission at UNESCO has been close to the prime minister.  

The loss against Pakistan comes months after India had tasted victory against a more formidable adversary, China. India was elected from among the Asia Pacific nations to the UN Statistical Commission in New York in April, edging past China with a 53-46 score. 

India has a good track record of winning UN body polls. The vice chair of UNESCO may not be an important position but the fact that Pakistan was in the contest against India lent it some importance.

The UNESCO contest was one of the several that involve representations from various geographical regions. The effort generally is to agree on a consensus candidate from each of the six regions. The failure to agree on a consensus candidate is followed by exploring the chances of the candidate most likely to win.

Experienced Indian diplomats and mission staff get into the act to gather enough support for the victory of the Indian candidate. If necessary, it may also require some bargaining or promise of a reciprocal support. Over the last 10 years or so, Indian diplomats have been able to notch victories in most contests by the country’s representatives in different world bodies.     

For Pakistan, defeating India is an ecstatic experience. The Pakistan foreign office did not forget to rub in the point that the 38-18 vote defeat of India was possible with overwhelming help of members from the Global South. In fact, in an official statement, Pakistan’s foreign ministry acknowledged ‘overwhelming’ support from the Asia-Pacific Group which led to a wide margin of India’s defeat.

The votes for India came mostly from the Western nations.  India’s hold over the Global South, that includes countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, may be slipping. India as the leading power in the Global South should have managed victory for its representative at UNESCO if its claims of clout are true.   

The poll pattern at UNESCO deals a blow to India’s calling itself the leader of the Global South. At the G-20 summit in Delhi, this role of India was loudly proclaimed through posters all over the capital and through various discussions held to mark the occasion.

India’s permanent representative at UNESCO is currently headed by a political appointee, Vishal V. Sharma, a former OSD to Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Usually, the permanent representative at UNESCO is chosen from among the IFS or IAS officers. Sharma was appointed in October 2020 on a three-year term which has been extended by another year, perhaps indicating his closeness to the powers that be.

UNESCO contributes to peace and security by promoting international cooperation in education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. There have been times in the past when the Western bloc did not look very pleased with the functioning of UNESCO.

The current Indian permanent representative at the Paris headquarter of UNESCO has obviously very strong ‘cultural nationalism’ credentials which might have prompted his dispatch to the French capital.

He is reported to have described August 5, the day of laying the foundation stone of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, as the ‘civilisational day’ which in his opinion was perhaps greater than the Independence Day (August 15) because August 5 activated the ‘true spirit of Indian civilisation.’ For him, August 5 also represented the day of ‘victory of tolerance and Raghupati Raja, Raja Ama Rajya’, over the forces of ‘evil’.

UNESCO has declared 42 Heritage Sites in India. The Viswa Bharati, founded by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in 1901, was declared a Heritage Site weeks ago in September but the white marble plaque did not mention his name; instead it mentioned the names of Narendra Modi and the current vice chancellor, Bidyut Chakrabarty, leading to deep resentment across the nation.

The Taj Mahal at Agra is another Heritage Site that has irked some religious extremists who want it dug up as the marvelous white mausoleum was allegedly built over a Shiva temple. UNESCO selects the Heritage Sites on the basis of a number of criteria.

Italy heads the list of countries with the maximum number of Heritage sites (59) followed by China (57) and then Germany and France (52 each); Pakistan has six.  (SAT)