| Lost chance
I read and re-read Manmohan Singh’s speech to the 14th summit of the non-aligned movement on September 15 in Havana with bewilderment and amazement. That speech merited a second reading because I could not believe that the prime minister would make no reference — not even a passing reference — to India’s most immediate diplomatic priority before a forum of 118 countries, all of which are members of the United Nations general assembly.
It is possible that in another eight days, the UN security council may choose a successor to Kofi An-nan to assume charge as the next secretary-general of the world body on January 1, 2008. If that does not happen, a decision is likely any day thereafter and certainly, in a matter of weeks. India has fielded Shashi Tharoor as its candidate for the post and staked its considerable reputation on getting him elected as Asia awaits its turn, after 35 years, for the world’s most high profile diplomatic job.
Every other government which has made its claim for the job was campaigning on behalf of its candidate in Havana — those who are not part of NAM were campaigning by proxy. But India set its sights elsewhere at the NAM summit, on other issues. Nehru-style, the Indian delegation aimed for the impossible, neglecting what was within New Delhi’s reach and paying no attention to what was urgent and immediate.
So the prime minister spoke of “a working Paper on nuclear disarmament which will be circulated as a document at the UN General Assembly session this year,” ostensibly an updated rehash of the Rajiv Gandhi action plan for nuclear disarmament of 1988. Is anyone — anyone at all — going to pay attention either in NAM or in the general assembly to this rehash at a time when there is a growing global crisis over the American and Israeli wish to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, when the North Korean delegate to NAM, the president of the Presidium of its Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, declared unequivocally that Pyongyang has a nuclear bomb'
In his Havana speech, the prime minister did what is expected of a Congressman, true to the Congress culture. He quoted Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and praised Rajiv Gandhi. He made three ritual references to three of his predecessors belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family. But he abdicated his duty as prime minister — more so as external affairs minister — when he failed to urge NAM members to support India’s candidate for the post of UN secretary-general. For now, that is the urgent priority for every diplomat in each Indian mission around the world. After all, under Article 97 of the UN Charter, “the secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” It was as if the prime minister altogether forgot that 118 of the UN general assembly’s 191 members were represented in Havana.
Five elected members of the security council, who will actually vote in the selection of Annan’s successor, are full-fledged members of NAM and were in Havana with due representation: Congo, Ghana, Peru, Qatar and Tanzania. Among the permanent members, both China and Russia sent delegations to Havana in their respective capacities as observer and guest at NAM summits. Argentina, another elected member of the council, found its way back into NAM — which it left under a previous government — and was represented as a guest. Thus, more than half of the 15 security council members were present at the NAM summit. Unlike Singh, Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, had this to say in his speech to NAM while talking about the UN and NAM’s role in UN reform: “No less important is the need for an effective UN secretary-general who can lead the organisation in fulfilling the Charter mandates and in implementing its reform. Bearing that in mind, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN with its 10 member countries believes that its candidate, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai, is the most appropriate choice for the UN at this critical period in its history.”
On Saturday, the Press Trust of India reported that the prime minister had raised Tharoor’s candidature with Kofi Annan during his meeting with the secretary-general on the sidelines of the NAM summit. Of all the people who assembled in Havana for the NAM conference, Annan is probably the person who is least relevant at this stage to the process of choosing the next secretary-general. He has virtually no role in the choice of his successor.
Surakiart, the ASEAN’s choice to succeed Annan, was in Havana and, by all accounts, conducted a brisk campaign, especially among the eight security council members who were at the NAM summit. Supplementing his personal efforts, the ASEAN issued a statement asking nations assembled in Havana to support their candidate and pledged to “collectively and individually garner support for the ASEAN candidate for the post of UN secretary-general as the campaign reaches its final stages.”
Zeid Ra´ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the Jordanian prince who entered the race only a few weeks ago ostensibly at Washington’s behest, was also in Havana, hoping to improve his dismal showing of just six positive votes in last Thursday’s straw poll. He went for the NAM summit after his candidature got a shot in the arm a few days ago in the form of strong support from Arab foreign ministers who were present in large numbers in Havana and were campaigning for him.
Jayanta Dhanapala, who trailed even prince Zeid and got the least number of “encouraging” votes, is not an official of the Sri Lankan government. But Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, made Dhanapala a senior adviser to the Sri Lankan delegation to Havana and took Dhanapala with him for the NAM summit so that lobbying could be mounted in Cuba for Colombo’s candidate.
Alas, India did nothing. New Delhi did not include Tharoor in its team to Havana, it did not ensure its candidate’s presence there through some other means and, of course, the prime minister did not mention the Indian candidate in his address to the NAM summit. It is not that Singh is not enthusiastic about Tharoor. Not at all. Russian and Western diplomats who were at the recent G-8 summit in St Petersburg said Singh did all he could then to advance Tharoor’s case.
The prime minister told reporters on his way back from Cuba that New Delhi’s readiness “to assume our role in the management of international polity” will not materialise in one day. It will never materialize unless New Delhi changes the way it runs its efforts to assume such roles.
As part of its campaign on behalf of Tharoor, special envoys of the prime minister were sent out to some member states of the security council to promote the Indian candidate. But the individuals who were chosen as special envoys had no political stature or current diplomatic standing, and therefore they received a cold reception in the capitals they visited. In most countries, the head of state or government declined to meet these special envoys. The prime minister’s office demeaned itself in the process and devalued the post of special envoy. There was a time when all doors would open in key world capitals to a special envoy of the Indian prime minister.
This week, the defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is standing in for Singh as leader of the Indian delegation to the annual general assembly. But the decision to send Mukherjee as head of the Indian delegation was taken so late that the defence minister has been unable at the time of writing to schedule appointments in New York with leaders of member states of the security council to plead Tharoor’s case ahead of the next straw poll on September 28.
Leaders across the globe who have met Tharoor during his gruelling campaign have been impressed by his erudition, charm, intellect and articulacy. If only the government had exposed him in Havana — and this week in New York along with Mukherjee — to more heads of state and government, some of those who support South Korea’s inarticulate and dull foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, may have had second thoughts about entrusting the UN to his charge, or to someone else less presentable than the Indian candidate.
The prime minister appears to have personally realized the mistakes of the Indian campaign for Tharoor, judging from his remarks on the plane back from Havana. But the mistakes came at the most crucial stage of the campaign and has cost Tharoor the support that India could have easily mustered for his candidature.