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No, India has yet to prove it can put the world first


India is on a roll. The elephant awakens, say weekly news magazines. A sizzling economy, acceptance as a nuclear power, a cozy relationship with the United States, high hopes for a spot on the UN Security Council, and now, it has nominated one of its own for the post of UN secretary-general.

Granted, India couldn’t have offered up a more suitable candidate. Shashi Tharoor is well qualified, currently serving as the under-secretary-general for communications and public information; his career with the United Nations spans decades. He’s an award-winning writer and a respected intellectual. And then, there’s that eye-candy factor.

It would be quite a coup. The secretary-general is, for the general public, the face of the United Nations. But a coup for whom? The United Nations, the world, or for India? The buzz seems to be that if India succeeds in this campaign, it would be, first and foremost, good for India.

Officially, the UN General Assembly appoints the secretary-general upon nomination by the Security Council. In reality, a large part of the process takes place well before the formal nomination, ensuring the votes needed by the Security Council. It’s said that India wouldn’t have nominated a candidate unless it was confident of backing by the superpowers. There’s also an element of tradition that dictates that the next secretary-general will hail from Asia. However, tradition also means that he (it is too much to hope that the next UN secretary-general will be a “she”) will not come from a superpower such as India.

What kind of an example can India set for the world? The country has been on the brink of war with its neighbor in the not-so-distant past and has made no secret of its ambition to become a nuclear power. Throwing an Indian into the race for UN secretary-general may have already caused discord in Asia. If India can field a candidate, so can Pakistan. Other countries vying for the post include Malaysia, Singapore, and perhaps Bangladesh. Sri Lanka, who thought their man would win, is upset with India.

Furthermore, while it has arrived as an economic force to be reckoned with, India’s record in dealing with poverty and improving the lives of the majority of its citizens is poor. What kind of leadership will an Indian secretary-general provide then for the world? Will an Indian focus on improving the condition of people in so many of the UN member nations or be more focused on the Indian agenda?

The UN charter speaks of tolerance, peace, and economic advancement for all nations. Ironically, by nominating a UN secretary-general candidate India may end up being perceived as a divisive force rather than one that UNifies.

Reeta Sinha wrote this opinion from Las Vegas, Nev.


Yes, India is woefully under-represented


I must confess that it is difficult for me to be totally objective about Shashi Tharoor’s candidacy. Tharoor’s sister and brother-in-law are old friends of mine, and I have met him at their house, and occasionally exchanged email with him. And I have thoroughly enjoyed some of his writing, especially The Great Indian Novel. So I would be predisposed to supporting Tharoor.

But there are less subjective reasons, too. For a nation that has the numbers—about a sixth of humanity—India is woefully under-represented at the global level. Take the number of world-renowned Indian-origin people: L.N. Mittal, Jagdish Bhagwati, the Harilelas and the Hindujas, Salman Rushdie, Aishwarya Rai, Vinod Khosla. Just a handful.

For a clever and articulate people, this is pathetic. Especially as India has burst on the scene with its economic growth, it stands to reason that Indians should gain greater visibility; maybe the tipping point will be an Indian becoming the UN secretary-general, for that is certainly extremely visible. And Tharoor has been the United Nations’ media-savvy marketing manager.

I, alas, have a jaundiced view of the United Nations. I believe India’s desperation for the Security Council is quixotic, especially since Jawaharlal Nehru renounced the seat offered to India, arguing that it should be given to China instead! (The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Series II, Vol 29, pp. 231. Minutes of meetings with Soviet leaders, 22 June 1955)

If the Security Council seat is truly important, India should assert itself and threaten to withdraw from the United Nations unless its demands are met. The current system of apartheid that favors a rogue state like China and spent powers like the United Kingdom and France is untenable and is a historical relic.

Will Tharoor be able or willing to direct the evolution of the United Nations—assuming he wins—in a way that would be helpful for India? He certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of helping India get into the Security Council through the back door. The powers-that-be are loath to part with any part of said power, and will sabotage any sensible reforms, making the secretary-general’s job that much harder.

Nevertheless the role model of an Indian-origin person being the world’s top bureaucrat is certainly not a bad one for young Indians just as the success of writers like Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh has encouraged a whole generation of Indian-English writers.

Besides, in the UN’s system of reservations, the UN secretary-general’s position is to go to Asia this time. It will be another 12 or 16 years before it is Asia’s turn again. That’s too far off, certainly for Tharoor who, today, has all the networks in place to succeed.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Hyderabad.