Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Will Tharoor's UN loss be India's gain?

By Swapan Dasgupta 

For a civilisation that is yet to fully overcome the disabilities of prolonged servitude, the importance attached to international recognition is exceptional.

Rabindranath Tagore was widely regarded as an accomplished upper class dilettante in Bengal until the Nobel Prize catapulted him into a national sage. Likewise, it was Dr S. Radhakrishnan 's election to a Fellowship at All Souls in Oxford that facilitated his scholastic deification at home and his eventual move to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Judged by these precedents, Shashi Tharoor 's curriculum vitae is, as yet, not all that awesome. A distinguished international bureaucrat who has served the United Nations all his working life and written novels and commentaries in his spare time, Tharoor has offered himself as a candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General. After months of quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying, the UPA Government has signalled its decision to back his candidature, not least because convention deems that Kofi Annan 's successor should preferably be from Asia.

We are also informed that, in a bid to forge a national consensus, Tharoor has also succeeded in securing the backing of an extremely gullible BJP leadership. He, unfortunately, has not been able to secure the unequivocal backing of the CPI(M). The Left, for a change, appears to have asked all the right questions.

If Tharoor does indeed make it to the top UN job with India 's active backing, there is certain to be widespread jubilation in the country at yet another great Indian achievement. Regardless of the fact that he has lived overseas since the time he graduated from St Stephen 's College in 1975, Tharoor is in every respect an Indian, in the same way as Amartya Sen is. The Indian political class must not hold his non-resident status against him.

It is necessary, however, to introduce a caveat at this stage. The job that Tharoor seeks is no ordinary one. The present Secretary-General may have contributed more than his fair share to bringing the top job into some disrepute but the fact remains that the CEO of the UN is a position of exceptional importance. Along with the five permanent members of the Security Council, the UN is the sixth pillar of the global order. By listing his impressive career achievements, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman made it sound that Tharoor was bidding for membership of the Athenaeum Club or staking his claim to be President of Harvard University.

Important as these positions are, Kofi Annan's job is a league apart. To be fair, Tharoor has avoided playing to the gallery. He has said that, if elected, he would be an Indian Secretary-General but not India's Secretary-General. In other words, it would be unrealistic of India to expect him to do its bidding from New York. Shorn off diplomatic niceties, it is a proclamation that India will be sponsoring Tharoor but not its own man.

Detachment from national origin is imperative if Tharoor is to secure wider backing for his nomination. At the same time, the issue of neutrality prompts a larger question: if the beneficiary of the Tharoor campaign is only Tharoor, should India not look to its larger diplomatic interests? If Tharoor succeeds Annan, India 's claim to be made a permanent member of the UN is certain to be shelved for an indefinite period. It is an unwritten convention that the UN Secretary General is not from a country that has a stake in the Security Council.

Does the Government want India to jettison its Security Council claims to back a person who, despite being in a UN job, had never shied away from taking positions on domestic Indian politics?

Tharoor, for example, became a secular preacher during the Ayodhya movement. Those with long memories may like to recall the role of Annan 's secretariat in badgering India after the 1998 Pokhran-II blasts. Can Tharoor seriously deny that his neutrality was not impaired by his profound antipathy to the non-Congress Government that was in place between 1998 and 2004? Did Tharoor's certitudes determine Annan 's profoundly unhelpful attitude to India in this period? Tharoor 's right to hold strong opinions on Indian politics should not be denied. However, if he was fearless enough to express them while holding a UN job, what will he do if he is elevated to the UN Secretary-General's job? If the ruling arrangement in Delhi changes in the short-term, will Tharoor 's view of India remain as rosy?

It is understandable that a section of the Congress leadership is keen to reward Tharoor for his proximity to the stalwarts of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Tharoor, for example, once described the now-discredited former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh as an inspiration. He was also one of those who defended Sonia Gandhi during the "foreigner " controversy. All these stands call for recognition.

The question is: can this be done in a way that does not compromise India 's long-term strategic interests? As things stand, the prospect of a Tharoor victory is as compelling as Ecuador winning the FIFA World Cup. That, however, is not the point. What will be the collateral damage to India by persevering with someone's flight of whimsy?

Would it not be more prudent if the Congress Party took into account Tharoor's untenable position in a post-Annan dispensation and appointed him to the vacant post of External Affairs Minister? I get the feeling that events are moving in that direction. If nothing, it would establish the precedent that people need to be taken seriously at the age of 50.

Tharoor is a good Indian asset. Let us use him productively to benefit India. As for the Secretary-General's job, let India use its good offices to elect someone who can both win and be kindly disposed to India. As things stand, New Delhi seems hell-bent on making a fool of itself.

Free Press Journal, June, 2006

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