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A POT OF INDIAN CRABS
- The UN top job is an Indian's for the asking

Romesh Bhandari ' the former foreign secretary and former governor of Tripura, Goa and Uttar Pradesh, who nearly became governor of West Bengal last year with the blessings of the leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi ' was fond of telling a story in the Eighties. Those were the years when he was in tight competition with K. Natwar Singh and a couple of his peers in the Indian foreign service for the foreign secretary's job, fretting and plotting daily because he had no idea whom In-dira Gandhi would finally pick for the top diplomatic job open to civil servants.

The hero of Bhandari's favourite story was the Indian entrant to an international competition, the theme of which was the strength and character of each participating nation. The Indian participant was travelling half-way round the globe with his entry, which was an open pot with highly poisonous crabs. The competitor, blessed with a gift of the gab, persuaded Air India's check-in staff to let him carry his entry into the aircraft's cabin, but passengers were horrified when they found that the pot without any lid contained poisonous ' and hyperactive ' crabs. But our hero quickly pacified his irate co-passengers. 'This pot contains only Indian crabs,' he assured the other passengers. 'You know very well that every time one crab tries to get out of the pot, the others will pull him down. So you have nothing to worry about.'

This columnist recalled Bhandari's story a few days ago after an evening with several United Nations diplomats in New York: a subject of discussion was the choice of the next secretary-general of the UN. Kofi Annan, who has had two five-year terms as the world body's chief executive, will demit office on December 31, 2006. Unless Asian countries fail to collectively throw up a candidate who is acceptable to the rest of the world, Annan's successor will be from Asia by both consent and convention. The candidates put forward so far by Asians are pushovers, and Asia is in danger of losing the job by default.

An obvious choice for the job is India's former external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, but this is where Bhandari takes over. The truism of Bhandari's favourite story is evident from the sad reality that no one in India is putting forward Singh's name. It is worth taking a million-dollar bet that the United Progressive Alliance government will not endorse Singh's candidature even if it had a good chance of success at the UN: the crab mentality will certainly come to play in the current political leadership of South Block, should Singh emerge as a viable candidate.

That Singh is a viable ' indeed, ideal ' candidate as an Asian to succeed Annan became obvious during his visit to the United States of America a few months ago, his first after the change in government in New Delhi. Washington has a surfeit of foreign-policy think-tanks and New York has a smattering of them. Together, these think-tanks provide for a shadow practice of diplomacy with the opposition in the US running them and hosting both the opposition and rulers from abroad.

The US foreign-policy scene is now highly fractious, thanks to Iraq and the fight against terrorism, which is increasingly perceived as a campaign against Islam in the 57 countries that make up the Organization of Islamic Conference. Jaswant Singh was one of the few who appeared at these think-tanks in the last two years and drew bi-partisan endorsement ' and intellectual curiosity ' in equal measure in America.

The drive by India, Japan, Germany and Brazil ' known at the UN now as the Group of Four or G-4 ' for permanent seats for all the four countries in the Security Council started well and appeared to have a fair chance of success until the Africans decided that they would adopt Bhandari's crab strategy and not let any African state scale the walls of the General Assembly Hall at the UN and get into the security council chamber. With elections to be held shortly in Germany and Japan, the G-4 initiative is most likely to be put on the backburner for some time to come.

Among the G-4, India is the only country whose specific candidature faces no opposition, except from Pakistan. That being the case, the international community would be willing to accept an Indian candidate for the job of UN secretary-general to compensate for the loss ' at least for the time being ' of India's permanent seat in the security council.

No candidate from India, other than Jaswant Singh, has the stature, the profile or the experience to step into the shoes of a Perez de Cuellar, a Kurt Waldheim or a Boutros Boutros Ghali at a time when the UN's top job is an Indian's for the asking if only New Delhi would put petty considerations aside and get its act together in nominating a candidate who has a chance of being accepted by the rest of the world.

The way things are historically and traditionally decided at the UN, an Indian candidate would have no chance of becoming secretary-general. Candidates from countries which have disputes with other member countries of the UN are usually excluded from consideration. So are candidates from big countries as are nationals of permanent members of the security council. But Boutros Boutros Ghali's tenure buried some of those conventions. In any case, these are unusual times for diplomacy and the UN is not immune from the unprecedented challenges that the world is facing. These call for new precedents and new conventions. That may explain the People's Daily's assertion, more than once, that Shashi Tharoor, the under-secretary-general for communications and public information, may emerge as a compromise candidate at the end of the search for Annan's successor.

Such is America's unpopularity at the UN that the fate of any candidate sponsored by Washington is as good as doomed. If anyone doubts this, just look back and recall what happened to the Washington-backed efforts, more than 10 years ago, to put Germany and Japan into permanent seats in the security council. Those efforts died even before they could gather any steam in the general assembly, only because the majority of UN members saw the bid by Japan and Germany as having been sponsored by the US. At the same time, no candidate can get the secretary-general's $250,000-a-year job unless he or she has the explicit backing of the White House. Jaswant Singh is an Indian who has a fair chance of getting such backing from Washington because the Americans have worked with Singh and know where they stand with him.

The hitherto leading Asian candidate, Thailand's deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai, has spent the last few days at the UN headquarters meeting UN ambassadors on what has been dubbed as his 'listening tour', and discussing UN management reforms with senior aides to Annan. Sathirathai has taken care to call on the new US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who has a reputation for being unpredictable and abrasive. Sathirathai's only asset is that Thailand's fellow members of the Association of South East Nations have endorsed him. If there is a strong Asian candidate such as Jaswant Singh, the ASEAN can be persuaded to change its mind about the Thai minister. Already, they have changed their minds once: the original Thai candidate was Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister.

There are a number of other aspirants, but no one's campaign has really taken off. These include the Sri Lankan Jayanta Dhanapala, whose main claim to fame is that he perpetuated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; the Canadian Maurice Strong who set up the UN environment programme; Norway's former prime minister and former head of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who is supported by those who are calling for a woman secretary-general; and the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewsky, by those who want an east European to get the job for the first time.

Jaswant Singh, it is clear, can leave any of these candidates way behind. But New Delhi will have to make up its mind, create a consensus in favour of an Indian bid and start any such campaign quickly if the effort is to bear fruit by the end of next year.

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