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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2586

India's risky UN Gamble

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 short run.

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 Delhi’s 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 second term.

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 Pakistan’s 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, Tharoor’s election could indeed be a liability for India’s 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 India’s 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 Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong are mentioned as possible candidates. If India is there, Pakistan won’t 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.

High-risk gamble

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 Mubarak’s pleading did not change the situation.

Right now it is not clear whether Tharoor’s 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 bestow.

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 guessing.

China’s 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 China’s 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 India’s 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 -

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