Now that Shashi Tharoor’s gallant run for Secretary General of the United Nations is over, it is time to take stock. What were India’s objectives in supporting him and fielding a candidate? What has been gained and lost? What is ahead of us?
It would be easy enough to take the view that India did not venture terribly much in support of Tharoor and that the end of his candidacy is not of great moment. Tharoor’s own public statement of thanks to New Delhi does not suggest though that Indian diplomacy was derelict. As for the implications of his loss, it would be unwise to exaggerate the consequences, but equally unwise to ignore the tea leaves.
What were India’s motives in supporting Tharoor’s run for the post? Surely a negative rationale played a role, namely, how to say no. Given Tharoor’s seniority in the UN system, his visibility, and his desire to run, it would have been awkward, to say the least, for New Delhi to turn away from the first serious Indian candidate for Secretary General in the past 50 years. Domestically and internationally, it would have seemed churlish if not gutless.
On the other hand, support for Tharoor could have been regarded as having three positive advantages: prestige if he won, greater influence for New Delhi if he got the highest job in the UN, and consolation if not encouragement for India after its Permanent Membership debacle last year.
Given that Tharoor has lost the race in spite of New Delhi’s support, should we conclude that India has lost prestige, will find its influence diminished, and has suffered a further setback in its quest for Permanent Membership? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, kind of.
The government cannot pretend that the outcome has not been a diplomatic diminishment. In the long term, the episode will not count for much, but it has been a disappointment, especially after India’s quest for Permanent Membership also ended in some embarrassment.
Now that Tharoor’s run is over, it is worth asking what happened. At least four factors seem to have gone against him, especially in US calculations. First, he was perceived to be close to Kofi Annan, the departing Secretary General. It is no secret that Washington has become increasingly allergic to Annan.
Secondly, and relatedly, Tharoor was regarded as the consummate insider in the UN system. Here again, Washington was sceptical. If reform is to come to the world body, Americans feel it will come when a relative outsider takes charge. Thirdly, Tharoor’s strengths went against him. Ironically, his youthfulness and his telegenic appearance militated against his chances. Americans in particular mistrust foreigners who talk too well!
Finally, and again ironically, it is precisely India’s rise as a power that harmed Tharoor’s candidacy. It is an unwritten rule that big powers do not put forward their own nationals as candidates for the UN’s top job. India “violated” that rule.
Not surprisingly, from all accounts, it is the US, amongst the Big Five, that voted against Tharoor in the straw poll. If the four reasons cited above were not enough to stir US opposition to India’s nominee, a series of Indian policies have irked Washington.
These include New Delhi’s equivocations on Iran (at least in American eyes), the condemnation of Israel in the fracas in Lebanon by the Indian Parliament, New Delhi’s stand in the latest round of trade negotiations, and the Prime Minister keeping company with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela at the NAM summit (the Prime Minister picked the summit over the UN General Assembly).
None of the above means that the US-India relationship is in danger of being altogether derailed. There remain important areas of convergence and commonality: fear of terrorism, concern over the rise of China, trade and investment opportunities, technology cooperation, the role of the Indian American community, battling calamities and epidemics, global environmental challenges, and peacekeeping.
Moreover, the US has not primarily voted against India. It has voted for the South Korean, Ban-ki Moon. Moon is a tried and tested diplomat with experience at the highest levels, has knowledge of the UN but is not an insider, and comes from a country that is influential but not overly so.
Losing to Moon is no shame. He is a good candidate, even from India’s point of view: he is Asian, is from a friendly country, has served in India, and is a professional diplomat.
Still, India-US relations have taken a beating in the past several months. And there are dangers ahead. The India-US nuclear deal represents both an opportunity and a danger.
If the deal goes through, the two countries could put behind them one of the biggest constraints on their evolving strategic partnership. If it does not get through the US Congress, or if the Congress tweaks the deal in ways that are unacceptable to New Delhi, then the two governments will have to deal with yet another disappointment in their mutual relations.
India must shrug off Tharoor’s loss. New Delhi has done well thus far in reacting to the news of the final straw poll. The worst thing to do now is to suggest, as some officials have privately done, that South Block erred in supporting Tharoor.
This will only harm India’s standing in the world. New Delhi must also fulsomely congratulate Moon when it is appropriate to do so. More importantly, it is time to reflect on the near term in India-US relations.
The government must not allow domestic critics to get away with exaggerating the significance of the US veto of Tharoor, and it must begin to put in place a domestic strategy for the nuclear deal going wrong.
As for Tharoor, isn’t it time to lure him home and use his skills in India?
(The author is Headmaster, The Doon School, and an international relations expert.)