Failing to get Shashi Tharoor elected to the top job at the United Nations, it became a matter of prestige for the Indian government to ensure that Kamalesh Sharma’s candidature for the Commonwealth Secretary General’s post was successful.
A low-key officer highly regarded by his colleagues and peers, Sharma’s unanimous election on Saturday provides a boost to India’s international profile at a time when it is contesting for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
It is the first time an Indian has ever been elected to be what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the “first servant” of the 53-nation Commonwealth. India previously contested for the Commonwealth SG’s post once, in 1979, when former Foreign Secretary Jagat S Mehta lost out to Sridath Ramphal.
The Commonwealth SG is the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the main inter-governmental agency of the Commonwealth, a loose confederation of countries formerly under British colonial rule.
The SG is elected for a four year tenure, which can be repeated. His election comes a day after Pakistan’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth. India is set to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Educated in St Stephen's college in Delhi and Cambridge University, Sharma, 66, was a member of the Indian Foreign Service from 1965 to 2001.
As one of their own, the Ministry of External Affairs pulled out all stops to ensure Sharma’s election, even deputing a special officer from New Delhi, Anupam Ray, to the High Commission in London to act as his liaison officer. Soon after announcing his candidature (in June) Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon called in heads of missions of Commonwealth countries in Delhi to inform them of the government’s decision and to seek their support for Sharma’s candidature.
By the end of October, there were over 30 written endorsements from member countries in Sharma’s favour.
The decision to field Sharma was taken after the SAARC summit in Delhi on April 3 and 4, during which visiting heads of government had proposed that, this being Asia’s turn, the SAARC member countries should field one candidate, an Indian.
Sharma has considerable experience in handling multilateral global affairs, as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at New York and Geneva.
He was the UN Secretary General’s first Special Representative to independent East Timor. Sharma was spokesperson for developing countries in the UNCTAD during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations and also played a key role in both South-South and North-South relations.
He has, as India’s envoy in Britain, been a member of the Commonwealth Board of Governors, the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation since 2004. The four Commonwealth SGs prior to Sharma have been from Canada, (Arnold Smith between 1965 and 1975), Guyana (Sir Sridath Ramphal (1975 to 1991), Nigeria (Chief Emeka Anyaoku, 1991 to 1999) and New Zealand (Don McKinnon).