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Tharoor won't find it easy to win UN's top post

In all probability, India would face greater resistance from the non-aligned nations of the Third World than from the P-5, writes Inder Malhotra.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2006 18:39 IST

There was considerable surprise when India announced its sponsorship of Shashi Tharoor, 50, as its candidate for succession to outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who retires at the year's end.

No Indian has ever before held the top job at the UN nor has the Indian government sponsored a candidate during the six decades.

Why the change this time around?

Currently, Tharoor is Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, having spent his entire career so far, lasting more than a quarter of a century, in the service of the world body. In addition, he is a renowned author and columnist.

The only available explanation for India's support is that it was a "political decision" of the Prime Minister's Office that was passed down to the ministry of external affairs, which then swung into action to promote Tharoor's candidature.

The candidate himself was in New Delhi this week for consultations with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior officials. He will go on whirlwind visits to various countries to canvas their votes.

Indian diplomacy is geared to give him all help it can. The key question, however, is: what are his chances? Will India succeed in putting its man in the room at the top at Turtle Bay in New York?

Quite clearly the prime minister would not have laid his government's prestige on the line, and Tharoor would not have agreed to be a candidate, unless they were reasonably sure that they had at least a "fair chance" of success.

According to the foreign office, Tharoor's candidature was announced, even if somewhat belatedly, only after Indian diplomats had taken soundings in a sufficiently large number of countries to ascertain that there was no "instant opposition" to him.

But, surely, this does not mean that he is assured of a cakewalk. It is going to be a tough and long haul and its outcome is unlikely to be clear until the bitter end, and for obvious reasons.

In the first place, there is the overwhelming importance of the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council that have always kept a tight control on the appointment of the world body's chief executive and would maintain this hold, especially because no citizen of P-5 can be the UN secretary-general under a long-established convention.

Remarkably, in its initial "soundings", New Delhi talked to Washington, Moscow, London and Paris but not to Beijing.

Tharoor did go to the Chinese capital, entirely on a personal visit, "neither on behalf of the government of India nor on that of the UN Secretariat".

The Chinese were polite but made no promise.

It makes sense that at a time when it is Asia's turn to provide the UN with its secretary-general, China would, on its own, prefer any Asian other than an Indian.

On top of it, Pakistan - which has reacted sharply to Tharoor's candidature and declared that it would field a candidate of its own - can be depended upon to urge its "all-weather friend" to "block" India.

Even so, the calculation in New Delhi is that if the other four permanent members can be "persuaded" to accept the Indian candidate, the Chinese are unlikely to use the veto because of their stake in improved bilateral relations with India.

Both France and Russia are reported to be "positive" about Tharoor. The US, which matters the most, has yet to take a firm decision and would not be in a hurry to do so.

Yet, it has made it known that it ought to have been intimated about the Indian intention earlier. As for Britain, one can only say - repeating The Guardian's memorable phrase, used in a different context - that it would "follow the US, nose to bum".

Many Indians argue that the Americans would never accept a Pakistani secretary-general of the UN, if only because of the nefarious activities of the notorious nuclear scientist, AQ Khan.

But this does not mean that they would plump for the Indian nominee. This brings me to the second crucial fact that there are other choices.

Three distinguished Asians - Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand Surakiat Sathirathai, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban-Ki-Moon and Sri Lankan diplomat Jayant Dhanapala, formerly a UN under secretary-general - are already in the fray.

Others, including former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, might jump into it. Those opposed to India are bound to draw comparisons between the seniority and stature of these candidates and Tharoor's relative youth.

Also, India's huge size, compared with that of the countries to which rival candidates belong, will also come under the scanner.

Up to now all secretary-generals have come from countries like Belgium, Sweden, Burma (Myanmar), Austria, Peru and Ghana.

In any case, it is no mere coincidence that such foreign policy specialists of the US as Walter Andersen and Stephen Cohen have already discounted Tharoor's chances.

One need not take their verdict as a gospel, but there is a third and somewhat ironic reality to reckon with.

In all probability, India would face greater resistance from the non-aligned nations of the Third World than from the P-5.

It is no secret that many members of the admittedly obsolescent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) are sore with India for ignoring it for the sake of "strategic partnership" with the US.

Indeed, within India also there has been criticism of the government on this score.

Moreover, Pakistan would surely try to mobilise the more than 50 votes of the countries belonging to the Organization of Islamic Conference.

Even a secretary-general elected by the Security Council has to be ratified by the General Assembly by a clear majority.

No wonder Manmohan Singh has decided to go to Havana in September for the NAM summit and to give the UN General Assembly a miss.

(Inder Malhotra is a well-known diplomatic and political commentator).