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Opinion: Shashi Tharoor, the Next Secretary General?

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-15

The nomination by India of a national candidate for secretary-general of the United Nations changed the political landscape of the 191-member organization.

It signaled willingness by the world's biggest democracy to take a far more visible and activist role in multilateral politics, usually a maw of regional self interest and conflicting ideologies.

It signaled that India saw herself as having come of age in the international community on account of its growing economic strength - and that it could legitimately stake a claim to the most important global job not only in its capacity as a powerful developing country but also as an incipient superpower, one that's expected to behind only America and China in another two decades.

India's nomination of Shashi Tharoor - currently the U.N. under secretary-general for communications and public information - also signaled to the international community its endorsement of the world organization at a time when it is under severe assault for profligacy, mismanagement and ineffectiveness.

Not that India has been particularly diffident in the corridors of the U.N. But her representatives have long preferred to exercise their clout informally, either during India's intermittent tenures as an elected member of the 15-state Security Council, or in myriad committees on issues such as economic development and, the perennial hardy, nonalignment.

That India should pick Mr. Tharoor is telling - not only because he's a veteran of the U.N. system, not only because during much of his 26-year diplomatic career he's been closely associated with Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana, a particular favorite of the high chancellery in New Delhi, and not only because, at just 50 years of age, the London-born, U.S.-educated Tharoor represents a new generation of ambitious, press savvy diplomats.

India's choice of Mr. Tharoor is significant because it was made at all.

For long years, India's strategy had been to obtain bureaucratic posts in the U.N. system. These ranged from mid level jobs to sinecures at the levels of assistant secretary-general and under secretary-general. Indian military personnel often formed the backbone of U.N. peace-keeping missions. Senior officials from the Indian Foreign Service sat on U.N. commissions and panels, engaging in endless rounds of greeting, meeting and eating.

Successive Indian ambassadors to the U.N. successfully lobbied for high institutional jobs upon retirement. Indeed, it was often joked that the Indian Foreign Service was a cookie factory for the U.N. bureaucracy.

But when it came to the big job - that of secretary-general - India always went along with the tradition at the U.N. Under the unwritten terms of that tradition, candidates were often suggested not because of their personal qualifications but because of their provenance. Geographical rotation was paramount.

Moreover, the big nations - including the five permanent members of the Security Council, America, Britain, China, France and Russia - tacitly agreed not to field candidates. And so, secretaries-general were picked from small, nondescript nations. The conventional wisdom was that such men - and they were always men - would be more amenable to guidance from the big powers.

By nominating Mr. Tharoor, India cracked through those practices. For a country that puts great faith in tradition - diplomatic and cultural - the nomination was little short of revolutionary.

The question arises: Why did the government of Prime Minister Singh do it?

It is not that Mr. Tharoor was owed favors by Mr. Singh's Congress Party-led ruling coalition of 14 fissiparous political parties and groupings. Indeed, Mr. Tharoor's politics are nonpartisan; his writings as a novelist and columnist haven't suggested anything other than an abiding faith in secularism.

And while Mr. Tharoor has cannily cultivated the mandarins of New Delhi's chancellery, he isn't one of theirs - a career bureaucrat at the U.N., he's lived abroad for most of his adult life.

Three explanations for Mr. Singh's startling move suggest themselves:

He shared the regional view that an Asian candidate was needed at the helm of the U.N., and that perhaps the names already being bruited about - from South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand - were less than stellar. India's growing status as an economic dynamo and a standard bearer of democracy in the third world meant that Mr. Singh could take a shot at the U.N. job without seeming unseemly.

A second explanation might be found in the strengthening political and economic relationship between the Singh government and the Bush administration. President Bush has already gone against the political grain in Washington by agreeing to sell nuclear technology to India and not insisting that Mr. Singh sign the nonproliferation treaty. Perhaps the placement of a Washington-backed prominent Indian figure as U.N. steward could represent the logical next step in the blossoming Bush-Singh nexus.

Of course, it's hardly assured that Mr. Singh will find Washington in lock step with Mr. Bush. Yesterday, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke declined to comment publicly on the race for secretary-general, but he privately told friends that he didn't think Mr. Tharoor's prospects were especially bright.

Similarly, the current U.S. envoy at the U.N., John Bolton, is not known to be enthusiastic about Mr. Tharoor - but that may have more to do with his reported preference for an East European candidate, or at least one hailing from outside the U.N. system.

Finally, Mr. Singh may well have come to an informal understanding with Mr. Bush that an Indian candidate with sterling credentials such as Mr. Tharoor - an "inside man" no less - would energetically implement the institutional reforms that Washington has long sought. Since Russia and China - both signatories to the clamor for reform - have also indicated a preference for an Asian candidate, Mr. Tharoor's candidacy could be appealing to them.

There is, of course, a fall back position for Prime Minister Singh - one that could save face for him in the event that Mr. Tharoor doesn't get the brass ring.

In a new administration at the U.N. after January 1 next year, someone will have to serve as the next secretary-general's deputy, a job involving day to day management of the sprawling U.N. system, and one requiring total dedication to reform. It's a job requiring intimate knowledge of the multilateral bureaucracy. It's a job requiring being on the charm offensive relentlessly.

It sounds, in fact, like just the right job for Shashi Tharoor of India.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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