The great Indian hope

Shashi Tharoor’s nomination as India’s candidate for the United Nations secretary general’s post is a tough call   Pranay Sharma Delhi   His boyish face hides both facts: he is fifty and he is a serious contender for the United Nations secretary general's post. But Shashi Tharoor, India's nominee for the most sought after bureaucratic job in the world, is as tough as they come. To say he is an “achiever" is perhaps an understatement. He got his PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA, at the age of 22. As a journalist and author of several books, he is already well-known.  Though an Indian by birth, he would rather be called a global citizen. Since 1978, he has been working at the UN and has handled some very important but at the same time tricky, assignments. He is now the under secretary general in the UN looking after the important department of communications and public information. Tharoor is perhaps fated for more glory and may achieve even bigger feats. But from now till October this year, he faces the biggest challenge of his life. He would have to convince the world and the 191 members of the UN in particular, that he, among all the others in the running, is the best choice for leading the UN, at least for the next five years.  "I was not invented. I was there and that is why I was chosen," says Tharoor with the aplomb of a seasoned spokesman when asked to explain why he was chosen by India to become its nominee for this coveted post. But the question remains why India finally decided to break its six-decade long tradition in avoiding putting up its own candidate for the secretary general’s post.   The closest India had ever come to selecting a nominee for the post was in the 1950s when it seriously thought of putting up Nehru's sister Vijay Lakshmi Pandit for the top job in the United Nations. New Delhi's desire had much to do with the encouragement it had got from the Soviets at that time. But it couldn't be taken very far as the Americans had made their displeasure with the Indian choice known in private circles and threatened to make it public with the use of their veto-power to block her nomination if India decided to make Pandit's nomination official.  This time round, when the decision was made the foreign policy establishment was a little slow in reacting. Tharoor came to Delhi in April this year to make a reconnaissance and assess whether the Indian leadership would push for his candidature. Most senior foreign ministry officials then were not sure whether New Delhi was serious in nominating him for the post. But in the middle of June when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made up his mind and instructed foreign ministry officials to send out urgent despatches to India's missions abroad so that Indian ambassadors and high commissioners could start garnering support from their host countries for Tharoor, did South Block swing into action.  But there is still no proper explanation yet as to why India decided to put up a nominee this time. According to some, the decision clearly means that India is no longer serious in seeking a permanent place in the UN Security Council. It could be that though India has not broken away with Japan, Germany and Brazil from the Group of Four, it has definitely got wind of the fact that an expansion of the Security Council was not to happen in a hurry. The decision could also be part of India's self-image of being an emerging global giant and therefore, an attempt at fulfilling its desire to play a much bigger and meaningful role in the international stage.  The believers of conspiracy-theories are even arguing that Tharoor was rewarded because of his "help" in getting the relevant documents in the Volker committee report to the “right quarters" in New Delhi to fix Natwar Singh. No one knows for sure whether the under secretary general had any part to play in the downfall of the former Indian foreign minister.  Insiders, however, claim that the Indian decision was firmed up only after foreign secretary Shyam Saran's meeting in London with the US under secretary of State, Nicholas Burns. Saran could have conveyed America's stand on the issue to the Indian leadership. Though there is nothing to suggest clearly that Washington is also backing Tharoor's nomination, senior officials of the foreign ministry confide that India would not have been in the race if it had not got a “positive" response from key world players.  Kofi Annan, the man who Tharoor is close to and the one he hopes to replace at the end of December this year, was from Ghana. He has had two five-year terms. His predecessor Boutros Boutros Ghali was from Egypt. So the Africans have had their turn. So have the Latin Americans and Europeans. But the last time an Asian candidate was made the secretary-general was U-Thant of Burma who enjoyed two-terms in the office from 1961. After more than three and half decades Asia has once again got the opportunity to put up one of their candidates for the secretary-general's post. But there are already three others in the contention. Thailand has put up its former foreign minister Suraikrit, the South Koreans the former deputy Prime Minister Ban-Moon and Sri Lanka, the former UN under secretary general for disarmament, Dhanapala, as its choice for the post.  It is perhaps better that there is no consensus choice from Asia. In the recent past, the Africans had major trouble in finding a replacement for the Tanzanian nominee after he became their consensus candidate but was vetoed by the Americans. Pakistan, though threatened to put up a candidate, has so far not done so. It could still come up with a name. But a lot would depend on the candidate it chooses to compete against the Indian nominee. Pakistan's envoy at the UN, Munir Akram, suggested a name would soon be put up by Islamabad for the coveted post. It could be either him or his colleague Nafis Sadiq, who was chosen by Annan to be his special envoy for the HIV/AIDS campaign. But there is no clear word on it from Pakistan.  There is some talk that the Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, could be put up by Islamabad to counter Tharoor. If that happens, Aziz could well be a match for the Indian nominee. He is a well-known economist who has worked with the World Bank and is acceptable to the West. Moreover, being a prime minister from Pakistan—a "liberal”Muslim country, which is a close ally of the US could turn him into a serious contender.If he is nominated, the balance could even tilt in his favour if Washington thinks of compensating Islamabad for giving the civilian nuclear deal to India. But to start with, it would be Pervez Musharraf's call on whether or not he wants to nominate Aziz for the post.  There are already some serious and tough competitors for Tharoor in the fray. But the Indian establishment is confident that Tharoor is perhaps the least contentious of them all. Neither the US nor any of the other permanent members of the Security Council has a candidate of their own. This might be an advantage for Tharoor as most of them would like to have strong ties with India. The Russians, might support Tharoor along with the US, France and Britain. China is perhaps the only worry. But though Tharoor would not have been Beijing's choice, the Chinese leadership could well end up supporting him if it sees that the other four in the P-5 have no problem with him.  This is a scenario could also work out against both India and Tharoor. The P-5 might well come up with a consensus candidate at a later stage scuttling Tharoor's chance of getting the top UN job. His loss would mean a major defeat for India as well. The failure could be severe for Manmohan Singh since he is the one who took the decision of nominating him. A victory could on the other hand, boost his image further. The Economic Forum at Davos had some years back described Tharoor as a “world leader of tomorrow”. He could well be that, if his tomorrow comes. Or Tharoor could find himself to be unemployed at the age of 50 and start looking at his option of either becoming a journalist or a writer of fiction.