India's Multilateralism Reform: A Flawed Strategy

May 03, 2023

Multilateral institutions are neither geographically representative nor politically democratic institutions in the contemporary scenario.

If India gets a seat among the P- 5 (permanent members) nations in the UN Security Council (UNSC), would multilateralism not be in crisis? Not really. On April 25, India, through its mission to reform multilateralism, once again raised questions on the effectiveness of multilateralism at the UNSC open debate on 'Effective Multilateralism through the Defense of the Principles of UN Charter'.[1] Subsequently, addressing the UN General Assembly (UNGA) plenary on 'Use of the veto' under 'Veto Initiative' on April 26, India said all five permanent members had used the veto to achieve their respective political ends.[2] The exercise of veto is driven by, India added, political considerations, not by moral obligations

When the Indian Prime Minister delivered a video message to the foreign ministers of the inter-governmental gathering of Group of 20 or G20 in New Delhi that 'multilateralism is in crisis' and 'global governance has failed', same week at the UN in New York a historic ocean governance instrument -high seas biodiversity treaty - (through the multilateral process) has emerged successfully.[3] Has global governance failed in the contemporary 'uncertain world'? Or, is present multilateralism blocking the pathways to achieve aspirations (grant strategy) of new India as the global power centre?

So, how to put India's clarion call in this G20 to make 'global decision making must be democratized if it has to have a future' into reasonable? Above all and beyond this democratization of global decision catchphrase, pragmatically how to accommodate the government of India's foreign policy complexity of 'multi-alignment', neither 'non-Alignment' nor 'Active-non-Alignment', or as India's External Affairs Minister imagines' to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood, and expand traditional constituencies of support.[4]

Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, India's Finance Minister shared that an expert panel has been proposed during India's G20 Presidency as a priority to reform the multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, for its relevance in the 21st Century.[5] Parallelly, India has activated the G-20 idea bank, Think 20 or T20 (not the quicky format of cricket), led by Indian government-sponsored think tanks (GoTT) on several thematic task forces. One such T20 Task Force on 'Towards Reformed Multilateralism' primarily aims to reform the UN, not the World Bank or other multilateral institutions. But, the G20 expert group panel on reforming multilateral development banks (MDBs) is jointly headed by Harvard Professor Lawrence Summers and India's Fifteenth Finance Commission Chairperson NK. Singh, which met in Washington during the Spring Annual Meetings of the World Bank and IMF on increasing the Bank's financial portfolio, not deliberating on the structure and governance of the World Bank or IMF. [6]

It is a fact that most of the existing international organizations (IOs) or global governance institutions are post-World War - II edifices created, led, and now managed by Western countries and their ideals. Ironically, most are neither geographically representative nor politically democratic institutions in the contemporary scenario.

It is, however, not entirely unfamiliar that leading world powers have occasionally bypassed, bulldozed, bullied or even boycotted the multilateral edifices in which they are either founding members or active partners. Examples of defying multilateralism are the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the US withdrawal from Kyoto Protocol and UNFCCC in 2001 and 2017, respectively. Therefore, it is evident that multilateralism is not essentially at fault. Still, the conflicting and contradictory aspirations of member countries, who have contributed to the making and evolution of multilateralism, are in competition to control. Traditionally, the US has been providing a significant chunk of the annual expenditure of the UN and its agencies, the World Bank and other international or regional organizations. As a result, the leaders of these Western-led institutions are holding office as long as the whims and pleasure of the US and its Atlantic allies.

Let's take the example of the nomination of the Indian-origin US citizen Mr Ajay Banga as the 14th president of the World Bank Group by the US. From Eugene Meyer as the first president in 1946 to Mr Banga in 2023, all the presidents are citizens of the US and nominated/selected by the US. Has India raised the issue of this nomination or selection to 189 member-based intergovernmental institutions- World Bank- as democratic? Without questioning the credibility of Mr Banga, one must strikingly be questioning the process of selection of the President of the World Bank- a multilateral development bank (MDBs). Why is there no open, merit-based, transparent contest or selection process to appoint a President? Can there be no other citizen, or a female citizen, than a citizen of the US is capable or credible to become the President of the World Bank?

As a longstanding practice since its inception in 1944, the US appoints its citizen as the President of the World Bank, and Europe selects a European as the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreover, It's the shareholding capacity of the country that controls the multilateral edifices. In simple terms, one dollar, one vote, not the one country, one vote, has the unwritten guiding code in the decision-making process. As the largest shareholders, the US in World Bank Group/IMF, Japan in ADB, and China in Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), their respective voting powers are given more weightage than others in deciding loan amounts, grants, policies, projects and direction of the institutions through their representatives as Executive Directors (EDs) and their alternatives.

For example, in a 189-member IBRD (World Bank), among 25 EDs, six countries appoint their EDs according to their shareholding capacities, and the remaining 183 countries appoint 19 EDs. As the single largest shareholder of the World Bank/IMF with 15.42 percent of voting power, India has merely 3.11 percent against China's 5.64 percent and Sri Lanka's 0.25 percent.[7] The US mostly calls the shots in the Washington-based MDB. So, how are these MDBs democratically representative or democratically making decisions or representation from the so-called Global South - India claims to be its representative? India's Finance Minister said during the Raisina Dialogue that India is putting across the voice of the Global South at G20. Meanwhile, India, without any hesitation or questioning of the democratizing decision-making process, has happily extended its support to the long-lived tradition. Is it engaging the US?

Notwithstanding the letter of support from international NGOs, academics, Nobel recipients and development practitioners to the US nominee on the pretext of increasing climate finance or the Russian Federation's intention to submit its candidate for the highest post or the confidence of the US Treasury of no criticism for its nominee in Mr Banga. It is not the criticism or support to the individual but evaluating the long tradition of non-established procedure of selection of President of the World Bank and the governance of the World Bank itself. One must learn from the selection of the President of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB). In all probability, Mr Banga, as the deadline for nomination is already closed, will be elected unopposed.

India's frustration with multilateralism or global governance under PM Modi emanates from the Kashmir issue is being raised frequently at UN General Assembly (UNGA), issues related to human rights violations talked about at UN Human Rights Council (UNOHRC), stumbling block in listing terrorists and terrorist organization in UNSC, China's blocking of ADB project and program in Arunachal Pradesh and a long list of snubbing at multilateralism. Similarly, one would ask India why the V20 Group (climate-vulnerable countries) is breaking away from the G-77 + China to forge a powerful bloc in fighting climate change. Or, why least developed countries had raised concerns about not receiving enough Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects under UNFCCC as India and China received? While India now raises questions on climate governance and climate justice during UNSC open debate on multilateralism, it had argued at the same UNSC in 2021 that UNFCCC was the suitable arrangement for tackling climate change, not the UNSC.[8]  

The agenda to reform global institutions may not seem to be the highest priority for India. If India's Presidency of G20 rides on reforming global governing institutions or reforming multilateralism, in that case, it must not look into the UN to be reformed by accommodating its representation in the UNSC only but all Western-led institutions that are not representative of the Global South and democratic yet. Simultaneously, India must demonstrate elements of democratizing the local, regional and national decision-making process, not limited to only global institutions.


  [1]  Sidharth Sibal, "Indian ambassador to UN highlights India's exclusion from global decision-making, calls for UNSC reforms", WION News, April 25, 2023,

2 "Exercise of veto in UNSC driven by political considerations and not by moral obligations: India," The Hindu, April 27, 2023,… 

3 "PM addresses meeting of Foreign Minister of G20", Press Information Bureau, March 02, 2023,                                                               

4 S. Jaishankar, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2020.

5 "In conversation with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman," Raisina Dialogue, Observer Research Foundation, March 2-4, 2023, 

6 "G20 Expert Group on Strengthening Multilateral Development Banks",  Press Information Bureau , March 28, 2023,

7 World Bank, "IBRD Subscriptions and Voting Power of Member Countries," May 2023,

8 Avilash Roul, "Is UN Security Council inept in resolving climate change?", Down To Earth, December 29, 2021,

Author Note
Dr Avilash Roul, Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. His expertise and focus areas are climate change & resilience, water security and peri-urban sustainability.