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Tharoor bowed out with enhanced prestige for himself and India

By T P Sreenivasan
October 04, 2006 13:52 IST
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More than a year ago, a seasoned Indian diplomat, with vast experience of the UN, told me that the entry of the South Korean foreign minister in the race for the UN secretary general meant that a deal was already struck on the next chief of the UN.

His logic was that, for political reasons, the US would be happy with a South Korean secretary general and that South Korea would pursue the candidature with dogged determination and achieve its goal with all the resources at its disposal.

At that time, two other formidable candidates, one from Thailand and another from Sri Lanka, were already in the field. It was also known that several others, including the Latvian president and a Jordanian prince were waiting in the wings.

Shashi Tharoor's candidature, in these circumstances, appeared unviable, particularly since there was no great enthusiasm for a member of the Kofi Annan team, which was under the shadow of the oil-for-food scandal. The general understanding that the secretary general should come from small, neutral, non-controversial and non-nuclear weapon states was yet another hurdle. India was also not keen to detract from its pursuit of the permanent membership of the Security Council by starting another campaign.

The compelling factor for India's candidature was the availability of an exceptional candidate in the person of Shashi Tharoor. His impeccable reputation as an international civil servant, his stature as a thinker and writer, his deep commitment to UN reforms, his care and concern for his motherland, despite his long residence abroad made him an ideal candidate.

Many members of the UN, including some permanent members, encouraged him to enter the race. It would have been unconscionable for India not to offer such a candidate, when it was Asia's turn to provide the next secretary general. Clearly, it was a gamble, but it was worth the risk. India entered the race with no illusions either about its own acceptability or Tharoor's chances.

Tharoor bowed out of the race on October 2 with enhanced prestige for himself and for India. India and Tharoor played the game by the rules, with a dignified campaign. The results revealed the reality of the system, which ensures that only a person, who is acceptable primarily to the United States and then to the other permanent members, can become the UN chief.

Ban Ki-Moon, who had endeared himself to the US, first as South Korea's ambassador in Washington, DC, and later as a competent participant in the six-nation conference on North Korea, had a clear edge over the others.

The US still tested the waters about Jordan and Latvia, its other favourites, but found that they were non-starters and quickly joined the other permanent members in backing Moon. South Korea's aggressive campaign, allegedly with multi-million dollar trade and aid deals, guaranteed the support of most of the non-permanent members. There was nothing that India or Tharoor could do to counter the trend.

Apart from mustering more than the required majority with a single veto, the Tharoor quest contributed to a certain extent to the transparency of the election process. He articulated his vision of the UN with consummate skill and defended the organisation with exceptional enthusiasm. He drove home the point that he was in the race not as a saviour of the UN, but as an admirer of its achievements, who felt that it needed to be supported and nurtured by reforming and invigourating it. His ideas for reform will outlast his campaign and help the new dispensation to shape the UN of the future.

Strictly in terms of votes, Tharoor did much better than the others, including a serving president, a former deputy prime minister, a popular prince and a seasoned diplomat, all of whom fulfilled the established criteria and even enjoyed the backing of the permanent members.

No one can say definitely who vetoed him, but the intelligent guess is that it was the United States, which had never been inclined towards Tharoor, even though he had his supporters in the US Congress, the intelligentsia and the press. Some of them had made representations to the Bush administration in his favour. The new warmth in India-US relations did not permeate to the election process.

China, on the other hand, made it known that it would vote for all Asian candidates at the straw poll stage. It did not have to take the painful decision of favouring one Asian candidate, as the US was quite willing to bell the cat.

If anything went wrong about India's quest for the post of UN secretary general, it was the undue expectations that the candidature raised in the minds of the Indian people, leading to charges of illusions of grandeur, wrong policy and inefficacy of our diplomatic machinery. The media lapped up the ebullient, media savvy, articulate and photogenic Tharoor and declared him the winner.

If his candidature was projected as India's offer to the world as the best candidate it had, without making it appear as though India had a great stake in his success, Tharoor's performance in the elections would have come more as a welcome surprise rather than as a disappointing setback. India rose solidly to support him, but it did not have even one vote.

Happily, the Tharoor candidature will have no adverse impact either on India's aspiration to become a permanent member or on India's relations with the United States. On the other hand, the race has demonstrated India's potential as a major player in any arena. As for Tharoor himself, with his added stature as the runner-up to the highest position in the United Nations, the sky is the limit, whether he stays in the UN or not.

It was said of Pandit Nehru, the hero of Tharoor's only biographical work that if he had not become prime minister of India, he would have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Perhaps, his present situation is a blessing in disguise for Tharoor himself and the world of literature.

Tharoor wrote to me soon after he withdrew from the race that he had no regrets. India too should have no regrets for having backed one of its eminent sons.

T P Sreenivasan, who recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service, was India's former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, click here.

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T P Sreenivasan