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Delhi leaves Shashi in lurch

New York, Aug. 13: South Block’s advice to Manmohan Singh to skip this year’s UN General Assembly -- which has been accepted by the prime minister -- may cause irreparable damage to India's campaign to elect Shashi Tharoor as the next secretary-general of the UN.

At the UN headquarters here, diplomats from South Korea, Thailand and Sri Lanka -- countries which have fielded rivals to Tharoor for the UN’s top post – are delighted that Manmohan Singh will not be in New York this year to press the case for India’s candidate at the most crucial point in the campaign to choose a new secretary-general.

Eighty-six heads of state and government, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have so far confirmed their attendance at the 61st General Assembly, which will open here on September 19.

There will be intense discussion on the meeting’s sidelines -- and possible informal agreement – among world leaders on who should succeed Kofi Annan on January 1, 2007.

A formal choice will be made by the Security Council in late September or early October and later endorsed by the General Assembly.

As it is, Tharoor began his campaign more than two years after his rivals.

The South Korean candidate, its foreign minister Ban Ki Moon, has visited every country which will have some significant input into the choice of the new secretary-general.

Tharoor is the only candidate in the race who has not yet been to the capitals of all 15 members of the Security Council, who will vote on the choice.

Yet, Tharoor emerged as second to the South Korean in the straw poll for a new UN head that was conducted by the Security Council last month.

It was widely expected that the prime minister’s meetings here with his counterparts on the sidelines of the General Assembly would help Tharoor in edging past Seoul’s candidate to the first place in the next round of polling in the Security Council.

The presidents of South Korea and Sri Lanka and Thailand’s Prime Minister will be here from September 18 and make a strong case for their candidates with Security Council members and key countries in the General Assembly.

So will General Pervez Musharraf, basking in his reinforced role as an anti-terror campaigner following the recent break up of an alleged plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.

Pakistan is expected to make up its mind and push a candidate from behind as a surprise alternative to the Indian after Musharraf judges Tharoor’s prospects in discussions here on the margins of the General Assembly.

South Block’s curious argument against Manmohan Singh travelling to New York is that the Americans will cold-shoulder him if he arrives here from Havana after the non-aligned movement’s (NAM) summit.

But Musharraf, Cuban president Fidel Castro’s new-found friend, will himself be arriving in New York from Havana. So will some of America’s closest allies like Kuwait.

In their defence, South Block officials have been saying that the Prime Minister has already taken up Tharoor’s candidature personally with key countries during his meetings last month in St. Petersburg during the Group of Eight (G-8) summit.

But much has happened, including the straw poll, since the G-8 summit, which clearly calls for another intervention by Singh with world leaders on behalf of Tharoor.

South Block officials also point out that China and Russia will be at the non-aligned summit, but their representation in Havana is likely to be low-key since China is only an “observer” in NAM while Russia is a “guest”.

Besides, both Russia and China will be miffed at Singh absence in New York: the Prime Minister’s presence would have given an impetus to the tripartite India-Russia-China foreign ministers’ meeting in New York, which has now become an annual event on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

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