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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Why should India back Shashi Tharoor?

June 29, 2006

Whose idea was it to propose Shashi Tharoor as India's nominee to succeed United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan? Was there any actual discussion in Delhi?

Lay aside the small matter of the loss of face should Shashi Tharoor lose the election. Instead, focus on answering a more relevant question: How would India benefit even if Tharoor wins?

To give credit where it is due, the nominee himself has been very clear about his loyalties. 'I shall be,' he says, 'an Indian Secretary General but not India's Secretary General.' In other words, Shashi Tharoor shall flaunt his Indian passport when it suits him -- when it comes to being nominated -- but lay aside all duties of citizenship at other times. Rather than push India's interests vigorously he will maintain the seeming neutrality of a Pontius Pilate, a man whose post compels him to be undecided between Jesus and Barabbas.

Truth be told, the post of Secretary General of the United Nations carries no great power, and the occupant of the post is little more than the lackey of the great powers. Run through the list of the men -- there is no woman in that table -- who have been elected to the job, and you won't find a single American, Russian, Chinese, French, or British name.

From the election of Trygve Halvdan Lie of Norway in 1946 to that of Ghana's Kofi Atta Annan in 1996, the office has always gone to the citizen of some small nation. The list runs Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, and Ghana -- not exactly a group of major political, economic, cultural, or military powers. (Egypt got its chance only long after its Camp David Accord with Israel had undermined its influence in the Arab world, making it an American client state.)

The utter uselessness of the job was demonstrated as early as in Trygve Lie's day. The United States supported his candidature for a second term, but the Soviet Union refused to acknowledge him as secretary general. Lie resigned in 1952 though his term did not end until 1956. Since then, every sensible secretary general has done his best not to provoke the major powers. The United Nations had no part to play in the Cold War years, and it has been equally ineffective in the past fifteen years given the United States' position as the sole superpower.

This was, rather ironically, underlined when the 2001 Nobel Prize for Peace was jointly awarded to the United Nations and its secretary general. The citation read that the award was being made as a tribute to 'their work for a better organised and more peaceful world.'

This was said against the background of American bombs falling on Afghanistan, and when one could still see the smoke rising from the shattered remains of the World Trade Centre, not far from the United Nations headquarters. Since then, Annan and the UN have looked just as impotent as the United States marched to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

How has Kofi Annan's long tenure at the United Nations helped his native Ghana? Did Boutros Boutros-Ghali's term help reconcile nations in the Middle East? Isn't Myanmar as much of a closed society as ever though U Thant was secretary general of the global body from 1961 to 1971?

Given this history, why should India bother to waste time and resources in backing Shashi Tharoor?

My friends in the external affairs ministry tell me that the announcement of Tharoor's candidature came as a shock to them. They had anticipated that an Asian would be tipped for the job, given the convention of giving every continent a chance. Several names had been tipped for the post -- South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala. There was also talk of Jordan putting up a member of its ruling family.

A rational Indian foreign policy would have had Delhi sit back and wait for each of these parties to approach it. The post is a meaningless bauble but one may as well reap a little goodwill by promising to support one or the other. This, of course, is precisely what the Chinese are doing!

Instead, by rushing to back Shashi Tharoor, India has pitted itself against several smaller nations. Pakistan is mulling over the candidacy of Maleeha Lodhi, a cheeky thumbing of the nose by entering someone who is not just an Asian but also a woman. (As noted above, no woman has ever been secretary general.) The Arabs will probably rally around the Jordanian prince if one should enter the fray, and it could also be a way of expressing American gratitude for Jordan's help in hunting al-Zarqawi.

The ASEAN nations will probably back a Singaporean nominee. SAARC will be split between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. (And I wouldn't put it past General Musharraf to stir trouble by the grand gesture of withdrawing his nominee in favour of Sri Lanka!) Everyone will approach Beijing for support, and Delhi's foreign policy shall, once again, be shown up.

The most optimistic estimate I have heard of Shashi Tharoor's candidacy is that he has a 30 per cent chance of winning. But that is missing the point; I abhor this Indian obsession with the United Nations itself. I have had nothing but contempt for the body since December 7, 1971 -- the day when the General Assembly voted 104 to 11 against the Indian position during the Bangladesh War. (When the secretary general was the South Asian U Thant!)

Indira Gandhi ignored it, choosing to pursue Indian national interests. How I wish we had someone who possessed her cold-blooded analytical skills in Delhi today!

The Volcker Committee Report revealed the United Nations as corrupt and moribund. Individual wings such as UNICEF or the WHO may still have a role to play, but India needs to take a long hard look at the parent organisation. Should India really waste energy hunting the gimcrack glories of a secretary general's post or even that of a Security Council seat (which could not prevent the decline of imperial Britain and France)?

Indian interests won't be advanced if Shashi Tharoor wins the election; they will, however, falter should he lose. I come back to my original question: Who sponsored his nomination, and what was the rationale offered?

T V R Shenoy

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Number of User Comments: 12

Sub: INDIA has done good by supporting him

The writer of this article has a very biased opinion.. The man deserves a chance and he has got it.. Though I feel India needs ...

Posted by Abhinav Dalal

Sub: Shahi Tharoor

He has shown his true colours, even before he has been officially backed by India. It is about time this pseudos are shown there place. ...

Posted by parag soni


Mr Shashi Tharoor spoke the truth - he did not mix words - which is quite true for the person holding this position. Mr Tharoor ...

Posted by Hanif Mohammed

Sub: Article written out of jealousy

Looks like he is well qualified and is suitable for the job.He is serving the UN in some post. It is a well known fact ...

Posted by bob

Sub: American NRIs not supporting Taroor

Tarror ran a front page piece in the Washinton Post on the eve of VHP's world vision 2000 Conference. His uncalled for piece was highly ...

Posted by Pradeep Parekh



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