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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Shashi Tharoor

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-09

Shashi Tharoor gets things done in white heat.

"At an early age, I found an enormous capacity for hard work which never left me," the under secretary-general of the United Nations said.

That may be an understatement. At 50, Mr. Tharoor has not only established a stellar reputation as a diplomat with deep knowledge of diverse subjects - ranging from humanitarianism to conflict resolution - he has also carved an international name as an author and essayist.

He has produced nine books, including best-selling novels that received rave notices, one of which, "Show Business," was made into a film. He has written for learned publications such as Foreign Affairs; a recent essay, "Why the US Needs the UN," became one of the journal's most extensively requested reprints.

He often appears in newspapers such as The Hindu in India, and newsmagazines such as Newsweek. His journalism was included in a recent anthology, "Bookless in Baghdad" (Arcade Books). His next novel resides in his imagination awaiting, well, time for him to work on it.

Mr. Tharoor is sought after at podiums across the international-affairs circuit. Radio and television programs seek him out - not only because he represents the 191-member UN, but the telegenic Mr. Tharoor invariably makes their shows sparkle with erudition and good humor.

In recent months, one question has repeatedly arise - reform of the sprawling UN system.

"The UN is not the ossified, stultified bureaucracy of caricature," Mr. Tharoor said. "We must reform the UN not because it has failed but because it has succeeded enough to be worth investing in. I've tried to convey the UN's great potential and possibilities - with which the world as a whole should concern itself."

If there is a senior official in the management team of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who can speak authoritatively about reforming the 60-year-old organization, it most certainly is Mr. Tharoor.

That is because, as head of the UN's Department of Public Information, he has succeeded in streamlining what was an unwieldy bureaucracy.

"It was a confused mess of different mandates," Mr. Tharoor said of his unit, known generally as DPI. "I took on the job with an explicit mandate to reform DPI. We redesigned the place from top to bottom."

That redesign involved shutting down eight offices abroad. It involved cutting operational expenditures by 10%. It involved trimming the budget in real terms so that the worldwide yearly figure is now about $80 million (in depreciating US currency). It involved downsizing personnel to 754, of whom 300 men and women are in the field.

The re-invention of DPI showed a side of Mr. Tharoor that hadn't received wide attention previously. His diplomatic skills had been evident during his long years as Mr. Annan's special assistant, and during his earlier stint at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was part of a staff that won the Nobel Peace Prize (Mr. Tharoor wrote the organization's acceptance statement).

What hadn't been sufficiently recognized until his DPI stewardship came along was Mr. Tharoor's ability as an administrator.

His colleagues characterize his management style as empowering and effective. Part of that style, of course, is Mr. Tharoor's charm - which is legendary in diplomatic circles. It helps that he speaks several languages. It also helps that he has developed a flourishing network of friends and allies in virtually every capital around the world.

When asked about his service, Mr. Tharoor said: "I see the UN poised at a very crucial moment of history."

Such a perspective would seem natural for a man who joined the UN straight out of graduate school.

"I always had a very strong faith in the possibilities of international cooperation," Mr. Tharoor said.

But Mr. Tharoor wasn't simply just another qualified young adult when he opted for a career in diplomacy. He was only 22 years old, the youngest person in the history of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to be awarded a doctorate. In fact, Mr. Tharoor acquired three degrees in three years - a Ph. D., and two master's degrees. His doctoral thesis, "Reasons of State," is still required reading in courses on Indian foreign-policy making.

And just how did he accomplish all this at such a young age?

"I wouldn't recommend it to my own twin sons, Ishaan and Kanishk," Mr. Tharoor said, adding: "I denied myself the normal pleasures of late adolescence."

Such a combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation is typical of Mr. Tharoor's persona. One gets the impression that he doesn't pay much attention to the acclaim that comes his way. One also gets the impression that Mr. Tharoor inhabits a curious paradox: he is the opposite of the typical bureaucrat, yet incarnates the UN he has served for the last 28 years.

Few can match his record at an organization whose history and continuity he has mastered. [His recent analysis of the role of the secretary-general elicited a "wow!" from the popular Web site,] There cannot be too many, surely, to have seen the challenges of peacekeeping, refugee displacement, and humanitarian action from the inside, while developing a reputation as a skilled manager and reformer. Ambassadors from both the West and the developing world speak warmly about his cordial relationships with them, across the fault lines that are increasingly dividing the UN's membership.

Typical is his credibility with Jews and Muslims alike, as a visionary who's taken unprecedented steps to raise the UN's standing in the Muslim world while leading the first-ever UN seminar on anti-Semitism and guiding this year's moving Holocaust commemoration at the General Assembly.

"I'm proud of both my cosmopolitanism and my rootedness," Mr. Tharoor said. He speaks warmly of his first-hand knowledge of rural India from annual sojourns in a Kerala village. He proclaims his hope that a reformed UN will work better for developing countries, where more than two-thirds of the world's population of 6.3 billion lives, and where his country, India, is widely seen as a positive force for progress.

"UN reform need not be a North-South issue - reform should be about a more effective UN in the South," Mr. Tharoor said.

With such views and credentials, will he be a candidate for secretary general of the United Nations?

He declines to be drawn into the topic.

But Mr. Tharoor must surely know that in the months ahead, the global community is going to be looking for a qualified Asian. Then he'll surely have to come to terms with that topic.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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