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Saturday, June 24, 2006

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




By Swapan Dasgupta

For a civilisation that is yet to fully overcome the disabilities of prolonged servitude, the importance attached to international recognition can hardly be overstated. Rabindranath Tagore was widely regarded as an accomplished upper class dilettante in Bengal until the Nobel Prize transformed him into a national sage. Likewise, it was Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s election to a Fellowship at All Souls in Oxford which 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 United Nations bureaucrat who has written novels and commentaries in his spare time, Tharoor has offered himself as a candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General. His candidature has been backed by India’s UPA Government. In a bid to forge a national consensus, Tharoor has also succeeded in securing the backing of the BJP but not the unequivocal backing of the CPI(M).

If Tharoor does indeed make it to the top UN job, there is certain to be widespread jubilation in the country at yet another great Indian achievement. Regardless of the fact that he has lived abroad since he graduated from St Stephen’s College in 1975, Tharoor is in every respect an Indian, in the same way as Amartya Sen is. To hold his non-resident status against him would be an act of cussedness.

Yet, it is necessary to introduce a caveat. 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 as if Tharoor was bidding for membership of the Athenaeum Club or staking his claim to be President of Harvard University. Important as these positions are, there was nothing to suggest that Tharoor is the right man to be Secretary-General.

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 Kofi Annan, India’s claim to be made a permanent member of the UN is certain to be shelved for an indefinite period. Is this what the Government wants?

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 assert that he was neutral to the non-Congress Government that was in place between 1998 and 2004? Or did Tharoor’s certitudes determine Annan’s profoundly unhelpful attitude to India in this period?

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. 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 larger diplomatic standing? Wouldn’t it be more prudent for the Government to consider Tharoor for the post vacated by K. Natwar Singh? That way loyalty is rewarded, accountability ensured and diplomacy unimpaired.


Pioneer, June 24, 2006