| Kamlesh Sharma in Kampala on Saturday. (AP)
Kampala, Nov. 24: In a measure of India’s growing stature on the world stage, its candidate Kamlesh Sharma today emerged victorious in a keenly contested race to become the fifth secretary-general of the Commonwealth.
He was “selected” by the Commonwealth Heads of Government this morning after it became clear that a majority of the 53-nation grouping — down to 52 after Pakistan’s suspension — had been persuaded to back India for the post.
Twenty-two years ago, India’s former foreign secretary, Jagat Mehta, had been fielded for the coveted, if largely ceremonial, post and had lost.
That defeat, coupled with Shashi Tharoor’s failed bid to become the UN secretary-general last year, was clearly on the mind of India’s foreign office that pulled out all the stops to ensure Sharma’s victory.
There was a palpable sense of relief among Indian officials once the news came out of the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort that Sharma had been selected despite the fight put up by Malta’s foreign minister, Michael Frendo, who refused to withdraw from the contest.
In a statement issued immediately after the decision, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was “delighted” at Sharma’s selection. “His long record of public service in the international community has been capped by this recognition of his capability and his inclusive vision of the Commonwealth,” the Prime Minister said.
Addressing a news conference later in the day, minister of state for external affairs Anand Sharma said the decision reflected the “esteem and prestige” that India commands in the world today.
Sharma, on his part, said the Commonwealth was a “highly representative” world body and “what you can achieve in the Commonwealth may become a template of what you can achieve globally”.
Although the Commonwealth is largely seen as a “gentleman’s club” of former members of the erstwhile British empire, it has emerged as an important talking shop over the years whose views are taken seriously at least by the member countries.
This is evident not only from the distress in nations such as Pakistan when they are suspended from the body but also from the fact that countries that were not subjects of the empire — such as Nepal — have been queuing up for membership.
Sharma’s victory today was particularly important because it saw the acceptance of “Big Brother” India by a host of smaller nations which make up the majority of the Commonwealth’s membership. In fact, Indian officials were tense about the outcome of the “election/selection” till the last minute because of the “small nation” card sought to be played by Frendo.
With 22 of the 53 Commonwealth nations having a population of under one million, there was apprehension that the small nations of the Caribbean and the Pacific would back tiny Malta.
Another source of uncertainty was the relatively “low stature” of Sharma — a career diplomat rather than a foreign minister. Of the four Commonwealth secretaries-general since the post was created in 1965, three — Shridath Ramphal (Guyana), Chief Emeka Anyaoku (Nigeria) and the outgoing Don McKinnon (New Zealand) — had served as their country’s foreign minister before taking on the Commonwealth post. Only the first secretary-general, Arnold Smith (Canada), had been a diplomat.
Till late last evening, foreign ministry insiders were on tenterhooks about Sharma’s prospects and felt that a “lightweight” candidate had been nominated for the post only because of his perceived “closeness to 10 Janpath”.
Sharma, they said, was an old family friend of the Gandhis and the Congress president was personally set on his victory. That was an added reason for the frenetic lobbying by India’s foreign policy establishment over the last several months to canvas support for Sharma.
After his victory, the official line — echoed by Sharma himself — was that the individual was as important as the country in determining the outcome today.
Sharma’s stints as permanent representative of India to the UN, as the first special representative of UN to independent East Timor and as India’s representative on the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth since 2004 were cited as proof of his credentials that swayed member countries into selecting him for the top post today.