Journalist | Writer | Analyst
In nominating Shashi Tharoor as its candidate for the top U.N. job, India is taking a gamble. The payoff in terms of international visibility is potentially high while the cost of defeat is low, but only if the game is played properly.
21 June 2006
Will an Indian be the next U.N. chief?
EVER SINCE India went head-to-head against Japan for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 1996 and lost, official circles in New Delhi have had little appetite for standalone contests in international fora. Last year, when the country made a strong pitch for a permanent seat, it did so with the comforting security blanket of the G-4 firmly wrapped around it. Even so, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the PMO — perhaps sensing the difficult odds — chose not to get directly involved in that hunt and left all the lobbying and legwork to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Against this backdrop, New Delhi’s decision to nominate U.N. Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor as its official candidate for the top job at Turtle Bay suggests a new willingness to take a risky gamble on the world stage. Mr. Tharoor finds himself fighting the charge of being “light-weight” and faces stiff competition from a host of declared (and undeclared) contenders. Even though the stakes are much higher for its nominee, the Government presumably evaluated both the probability of victory and the consequences of defeat and found the cost-benefit ratio of the venture to its liking.
Within the foreign policy establishment, the decision to back Mr. Tharoor was not taken easily. Some within the PMO saw merit in India endorsing his candidature but the MEA and our mission to the U.N. initially felt the risk was not worth taking. It was only on June 13 that the MEA sent a confidential cable to its Ambassadors informing them of India’s decision to back Mr. Tharoor. The Ambassadors were instructed to sound out their host government’s initial preferences. They were also told that the formal announcement would be made later in the month, though the same was done within 48 hours.
For Mr. Tharoor, defeat will almost certainly mean the end of his career at the U.N., where he has worked for more than two decades. If he is prepared to risk it all, one can only imagine he has done his homework carefully. For India, however, there are potential costs, none by themselves overly onerous though a lot will depend on the precise manner in which the election campaign proceeds from here on.
Barring the 18-year period between Dag Hammarskjold’s election as Secretary-General in 1953 — in a race which saw Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Sir Benegal Narayan Rau of India also emerge as unsuccessful candidates — and the end of U. Thant’s tenure in 1971, the selection process for the job of Secretary-General has involved a high degree of unpredictability. In 1971, Kurt Waldheim fought off Max Jakobson of Finland and Carlos Ortiz de Rosas of Argentina to emerge the winner. With the backing of both superpowers, the dour Austrian got re-elected in 1976 but was vetoed by China when he sought a third term in 1981. With the United States also vetoing the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, Salim Ahmed Salim, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru — who was an Under Secretary-General in the U.N. at the time — eventually emerged as the consensus candidate. In 1986, he was reappointed for a second term.
In 1991, Africa claimed the post as its own. Though candidates from outside the region were also nominated (such as the former Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney) the serious contenders were all African. Eventually, two front-runners emerged — Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and Bernard Chidzero of Zimbabwe — with the Egyptian deputy foreign minister eventually triumphing. Five years later, the Clinton administration vetoed a second term for Mr. Boutros-Ghali, whose independence, particularly in matters involving West Asia, it had come to resent. Again, a slate of alternative African candidates emerged with Kofi Annan, the favourite at the outset, eventually rising to the top despite the initial opposition of France (because of his poor French).
While the U.N. Charter has little to say about the process of election, past precedent is a good guide to how the race will shape up this year. First, there is the question of Asia. The last four Secretaries-General have come from Africa, Latin America, and the “West Europe and Others group.” Rotation is not mandatory but U.N. General Assembly resolution 51/241 of 1997 did note that the Secretary-General’s selection should pay “due regard to regional rotation and gender equality.” As of now, the U.S. is refusing to accept it is Asia’s turn. And egged on by Washington — which favours Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia or Alexander Kwasnieski of Poland — the East European group insists it should be allowed a chance. However, when the election process begins in earnest [See box: The election procedure], Asian candidates are likely to dominate in the same way that African ones did in 1991.
As of now, the other declared candidates are Jayantha Dhanapala, a highly-regarded diplomat from Sri Lanka, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suriakart Sathirathai, who has the backing of Asean though none of its members is on the Security Council. Pakistan is reportedly considering fielding a candidate of its own with Nafis Sadik, Mr. Annan’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS, a likely choice as she has the advantage of being both Asian and a woman.
In canvassing support for Mr. Tharoor, the biggest obstacle India will face is the argument that a big country should not aspire to the post of Secretary-General. Small and non-aligned may have been an important formula during the Cold War but it is not clear why that should be the sole criterion now. In any case, two Indians were entered into the race in 1953 while Egypt — a large and important country with heavy involvement in diplomatic disputes in its neighbourhood — won the top job in 1991. In any case, to the extent that Mr. Tharoor has never held an official position in India, it is possible that other countries will see him as a candidate unencumbered by the baggage of national diplomacy.
But if the P-5 countries or Japan would never imagine fielding one of their own nationals, is the nomination of Mr. Tharoor a signal that India does not consider itself a major world power? Certainly this was a question many in the MEA asked, with the initial perception being that such a move might compromise the country’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Predictably, this is the line Pakistani diplomats have taken. Regardless of perceptions, however, the fact is that the two processes — and timelines — are completely unconnected. India can get a permanent seat only if there is enough international momentum for Security Council reform; there is little it can do on its own. And there is no reason why an Indian Secretary-General should reduce the appetite of the G-4 and other aspirants for a permanent seat. Equally, if ever there is an expansion of permanent membership, it is inconceivable that India would not make the cut even if an Indian is Secretary-General.
A major handicap Mr. Tharoor will have to overcome is the perception that a consummate UN insider like him may not be the best person to push through the administrative reforms needed. Thanks to his close association with Mr. Annan, whose relationship with the Bush administration started souring soon after his second term began, Mr. Tharoor might also run the risk of American opposition. This is presumably where he hopes India will come in. Given the growing strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi, the U.S. may not want to annoy India by blocking its nominee. At the same time, India should be wary of the quid pro quo that American support might involve.
Well before it took the decision to field its own candidate, India circulated a draft resolution in the U.N. General Assembly calling for the selection of the Secretary General to be democratised by giving the U.N.’s wider membership — and not just the Security Council — a decisive say in the process. Under the Indian proposal, which has the backing of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Security Council should present the General Assembly — where every country has one vote and none the veto — a slate of two or more candidates and ask it to choose one. The Indian proposal, which echoes UNGA resolution 51/241, took the P-5 — who are extremely protective of their veto privilege — by surprise. At least one of the P-5 was so offended that it sent a delegation to Delhi to “demand” an explanation.
One consequence of the Indian espousal of Mr. Tharoor’s candidature will almost certainly be to soft-pedal, if not entirely drop, the proposal to increase the role of the GA. But if it does so, other countries will see India’s commitment to the democratisation of the U.N. as insincere.
Apart from this issue, there is another “irritant” India has to contend with. If Pakistan decides to enter someone in the race, there is always the danger that the election will be seen not as a contest between individual candidates but between two nations perceived as prone to washing their dirty linen in public.
Under no circumstances should New Delhi allow the election to degenerate into one of those typical India-Pakistan squabbles for which the world rightly has little time. Indeed, nothing limits India’s profile internationally more than its inability to transcend “regional disputes” and forge a consensus in its own “backyard.”
One strategy might have been to jointly push for a South Asian candidate like Mr. Dhanapala. But having taken the plunge and nominated Mr. Tharoor, the Government must now join the campaign in earnest and ensure he wins the widest possible support. At the same time, it should also have an exit strategy in hand. At the first sign that Mr. Tharoor might not make it, India should find a way gracefully to withdraw its candidate and endorse the emerging Asian consensus candidate, whoever she or he might be. Whatever the outcome, India must emerge as a unifying force in Asia and not a divisive one.