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Will we drop this obsession with the UN?

By T V R Shenoy
October 05, 2006 17:37 IST
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Have you heard of the Neelakurinji? It flowers only once every twelve years, but the blue-violet-purple of its blossoms is so exquisite that the Nilgiris of southern India were reputedly named after the colour.

2006 is one of the years when the Neelakurinji can be seen, and I am in fact writing this shortly after the experience. Sadly, the flowers no longer cover the hills as they once did but it is still worth visiting, say, Munnar in Kerala or Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu while you can.

The lotus is, of course, India's national flower. But I think the Neelakurinji might well be a better emblem as far as our foreign policy goes...

Just as Indian tourists routinely ignore the subcontinent's treasury of natural and man-made wonders to boast of stamps on their passports, so too is Indian strategic thinking focused on chasing the mirage of international approbation. And, just like the Nelakurinji, folly bursts forth in full flower about every dozen years -- most recently in the Shashi Tharoor fiasco.

I had misgivings about India backing Shashi Tharoor from the time that he announced his candidacy. Here is what I wrote in June: 'The most optimistic estimate I have heard of Shashi Tharoor's candidacy is that he has a 30 per cent chance of winning.'

In the event, the Tharoor balloon was pricked before the formality of a vote in the General Assembly. Unfortunately, spin doctors are still trying to make a virtue of the fact that Tharoor was the runner-up through the race, receiving ten votes in the secret Security Council straw poll. But there is no silver medal in elections!

The sole relevant point is that Tharoor got three negative votes, one from a permanent member of the Security Council. We can speculate endlessly about whether it was the United States or China that cast the decisive ballot, but that is a sterile debate. The result was predictable before the first vote was cast.

Forget the textbook theories about the secretary general of the United Nations, in practice he is the servant of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Which, given the reality today, means he must serve the United States, China, and Russia -- in that order. (It has been a long time since either France or Britain dared defy the will of the United States, not since the 1956 Suez Crisis.) India didn't stand to gain a toss even in the unlikely circumstance of Tharoor having won his election.

Spare me the talk of the 'prestige' of having our man as secretary general! How much prestige has Ghana accrued since Kofi Annan assumed the office? (Here is a test: Can you name the capital of Ghana?)

Why are Delhi's chattering classes so obsessed with the United Nations? When exactly has this shambling dinosaur of an organisation, its monumental bulk ridden with corruption and inefficiency, ever served India's interests?

Jawaharlal Nehru approached the United Nations in 1947 to solve the Kashmir issue. (In the process he stopped Indian soldiers from cleansing the valley of invaders.) We all know how effectively the global body solved that problem, don't we?

In 1971 the General Assembly voted 104 to 11 against the Indian position during the Bangladesh War. The secretary general of the day was a man who couldn't claim lack of familiarity with South Asia, U Thant of Burma.

Most recently, in 1996, India chose to stand against Japan for a seat in the Security Council (as an ordinary member, not as a veto-wielding State). We lost, if I remember correctly, by the whopping margin of 140 votes to just 40.

Forget those ten Security Council votes that Shashi Tharoor got. (South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon won fourteen.) They were cast by nations in the comfortable assurance that either the Americans or the Chinese would put India in its place!

But the utter bankruptcy of Indian diplomacy is best seen when you consider our own beloved neighbours in South Asia. Sri Lanka began by nominating Jayantha Dhanapala; when his candidacy proved a non-starter, the Sri Lankan government endorsed Ban Ki-moon rather than Tharoor.

Afghanistan toyed with its own man, Ashraf Ghani, before it too withdrew in favour of the South Korean. As for Pakistan, well, it can be counted upon to eternally oppose India every which way!

Why then did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh court humiliation as late as September 18? Why did he propose to canvass for Tharoor at the Non-Aligned Movement conference (another dinosaur), cheerfully telling the media that he was "hopeful that Shashi Tharoor will give a good account of himself?"

There is a good deal of muddled thinking in Delhi over its United Nations policies. Yes, we want to be an ordinary member of the Security Council. No, we want to be a veto-possessing member. No, yet again, we want our man as secretary general.

Our intellectuals forget that the United States became the mightiest nation on the planet without joining the League of Nations. They ignore the fact that China gained power and prestige without being at the United Nations between 1949 and 1971 (when Taiwan held the seat).

India should be emulating these two -- the foremost countries today -- not competing for posts held by Ghana!

I suppose Shashi Tharoor may see an additional zero on the next cheque from his publisher thanks to all the publicity. More power to him if so! But India has, yet again, ended with a with a mark of zero on its foreign policy report card.

Will we, even now, drop this idiotic obsession with multilateralism in general and the United Nations specifically? Or will the next flowering of the Neelakurinji too coincide with a fresh blossoming of folly in Delhi's South Block?

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T V R Shenoy