India's risky UN Gamble
India's risky UN Gamble
Sun, 2006-06-18 03:46
P R Kumaraswamy - Exclusive to Asian Tribune
By deciding to field Shashi Tharoor as its official
candidate for the post of Secretary-General, India has
taken a risky, avoidable and potentially disastrous
gamble at the UN. Official spin notwithstanding, the
move implies that India has given up its aspiration
for a seat in the UN Security Council. At least in the
Many countries both in Asia and elsewhere world will
warmly endorse the Indian position of rotation under
which the next Secretary-General of the UN should be
from Asia. Indeed veteran socialist leader U Thant of
the then Burma, now Myanmar, was the last Asian to
occupy that position until he was killed in a tragic
accident in September 1961.
At the same time, many countries even within Asia will
have serious reservations of New Delhis subtext that
an Indian should be that candidate. If an Asian had
not occupied that post for over four decades, it is
equally true that no woman had ever occupied it since
the founding of the UN more than 60 years ago.
Tharoor, currently Under Secretary-General for
Communication and Public Information, hopes to follow
the footsteps of Kofi Annan. As under
Secretary-General under Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan
succeeded his boss. Since Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden
took office in 1953, every Secretary-General secured a
Boutros-Ghali was the only exception. Got carried away
by the support he enjoyed among the Third World
countries, he needlessly stepped on the American toes
only to be denied re-election. Capitalizing on this
situation, his deputy Annan of Ghana staged a
spectacular backroom coup and got elected in 1996 and
was re-elected five years later.
Indian mixed signals
By conventions, great powers, especially permanent
members of the Security Council, have shied away from
aspiring for the highest elected office in the world.
Since the election of Trygve Lie of Norway in 1945, it
has always gone to smaller, influential and often
neutral countries. Over the years the UN and the
office of Secretary-General has become highly
politicized and proximity to a great power would only
add further criticisms and impede the functioning the
person holding that office.
In throwing its hat in the ring, India has created a
host of problems for itself. This move comes against
the backdrop of its on going campaign for a permanent
seat in the Security Council. Its ambition for a seat
at the high table is visible and at times too blatant
and brazen. Seen in the context of earlier refusal by
the great powers to aspire for this position, one can
draw two conclusions.
Within hours after the Indian announcement Pakistans
ambassador at the UN Munir Akram reminded the world:
It is a tradition that the permanent members of the
UNSC or countries aspiring to be its permanent members
do not field candidates for the post of the UN
Secretary General. Simple English? India has given up
its Security Council aspirations, at least for now. As
some have pointed out, Tharoors election could indeed
be a liability for Indias leadership ambitions.
Alternatively one could accept the contention of the
Indian spokesperson that its desire for Security
Council membership and its candidacy for
Secretary-General are separate issues and it is
incorrect to perceive Indias support for one as
dilution of our commitment to the other. In that case
this would mean India is consciously breaking the
tradition set by the great powers even before its
entry into the elite club!
Lacking sub-regional consensus
Secondly, India belongs to Asia but India is not Asia.
The Indian move thus comes against the background of a
number of other Asian candidates who had expressed
similar interests. Among others, South Korean Foreign
Minister Ban Ki-Moon, Thai Deputy Prime Minister
Surakiat Sathirathai, veteran Sri Lankan diplomat
Jayant Dhanapala and Singapores former Prime Minister
Goh Chok Tong are mentioned as possible candidates. If
India is there, Pakistan wont be far behind,
especially for such a heavy-weight contest.Islamabad
has already indicated its desire to field a candidate
for the job.
In geographic terms it means candidates from major
sub-regions of Asia namely, East Asia, South East Asia
and South Asia. At present some have more than one
candidate and need agree on a consensus choice who
could then be the common candidate for Asia, should a
context with other continents become inevitable.
If this proves difficult then there could be more than
one candidate from Asia who could be presented to the
outside world. To reach such a continental consensus,
sub-regional consensus becomes essential. Given their
common political understanding and worldview,
countries of the South East Asia might agree more
easily than South Asia.
Ideally the India should have worked quietly and
announced a common candidate acceptable to all the
countries of South Asia. Not only this did not happen,
now there are two perhaps three candidates from the
seven-member sub-region. It is also not clear whether
India has consulted other potential candidates before
announcing its decision. Most likely it did not.
By seeking a position thereto avoided by great powers,
India is sending a wrong message to the smaller
countries. Its leadership ambitions and this move do
not synchronize and many would see it as a reflection
of confused state Indian foreign policy.
Furthermore, the Secretary-General is appointed by the
General Assembly, on the recommendation of the
Security Council. New Delhi should have taken a second
look at the Boutros-Ghali episode. Despite the
overwhelming support he enjoyed, his re-election
ambitions were quashed because of the opposition from
Washington. Even though he enjoyed the support of
other great powers US President Bill Clinton squarely
vetoed him. Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubaraks
pleading did not change the situation.
Right now it is not clear whether Tharoors candidacy
was broached diplomatically with others or that India
secured the support of the permanent members. So far
the US is not prepared to disclose its views on any of
the candidates, including Tharoor. It is safe to
predict which way the east wind from China will blow.
Electing an Indian to the Secretary-General would be
seen as an international recognition of India not just
of Tharoor, something Beijing would not like to
Therefore, the Chinese endorsement of Tharoor will not
be that easy and Beijing would extract substantial
concessions or quid pro quo from New Delhi on other
areas. If a Pakistani is in the race for
Secretary-General, there is no need for second
Chinas long term interests lay in identifying,
supporting and promoting candidates from small
countries. This way it could present itself as their
well wisher, champion and perhaps leader. With Chinas
veto power, it will not be easy for India to cross the
initial hurdle and reach a contest stage.
It is a high-risk gamble that India should have
avoided. India no longer enjoys the overwhelming
support of the Third World or non-aligned movement.
Hence, a contest, if it eventually comes to that would
reveal the extent of Indias popularity and standing.
These are unchartered waters.
On his own Tharoor is a well-respected, widely
recognized and scholarly person who understands not
only the nuances of high-profiled diplomacy but is
also equally at home with the sufferings of the
faceless, impoverished and illiterate millions who
live in urban slums or rural landmasses far and wide.
Tharoor perhaps has better chance of winning the
converted post by playing up his UN credentials and
underplaying his Indian connections. The central issue
is not his personal qualities or qualifications but
his Indian tag. Most scholars would be unable to
identify the nationality of current chief Annan.
Tharoor will not have that anonymity or luxury. There
lies the real problem.
P R Kumaraswamy, teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi.
- Asian Tribune -