Tharoor: The Next U.N. Secretary-General?

Indian nominee for U.N. Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor addresses the media after meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on June 19. (Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

Will Shashi Tharoor, India's candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as the United Nations Secretary-General, become the country's foreign minister if his bid for the top U.N. post fails?

Although there are no indications to that effect yet in New Delhi, Tharoor, currently the U.N. under secretary-general for communications and public information, has indicated that he will not have a job if someone else is chosen to lead the global organization.

With a diplomatic career spanning 28 years in the world body, and as the author of eight books in English and innumerable newspaper articles, the highly erudite Tharoor, 50, would be an ideal foreign minister — one that India has been seeking for some time.

The position of foreign minister has been vacant since last December when diplomat-turned-politician Natwar Singh resigned.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now supervising the foreign ministry himself, assisted by two junior ministers and a plethora of senior bureaucrats.

Although Singh is doing an admirable job — especially in improving relations with Washington — there are times that call for a full-time minister to handle increasingly complex international situations.

Although Tharoor's name has been making the rounds since last year, New Delhi named him as its chosen candidate this month, after the U.N. Security Council decided to, by July 15, release its first list of candidates to succeed Kofi Annan after he steps down at the end of this year.

Against the established custom of not allowing any member nation to sponsor a candidate, the Council has now made it mandatory that only official member nominations would be included on the list.

Annan's second and final five-year term in office ends on Dec. 31. His successor, who will be chosen by the Council around October, will take over on Jan. 1, 2007.

Although by a loosely defined U.N. convention, this is Asia's turn to have a secretary-general appointed, the principle of a geographic post rotation has been bypassed before. Most recently, this occurred when Annan from Ghana succeeded Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. The last Asian to hold the post was Myanmar's (Burma) U. Thant, who's tenure ended in 1971.

While the U.N. Charter does not spell out the selection process in clear terms, the U.N. General Assembly resolution 51/241 of 1997 states that attention should be paid to regional rotation and gender equality.

Although its Asia's turn by convention, eastern European nations are now saying that they should be given a shot at the top U.N. spot, as no one from that bloc of nations has ever held it before; unlike Asia, Latin America, Africa and western Europe.

The three other declared Asian candidates are: Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai; South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon; and former U.N. under secretary-general for disarmament Jayantha Dhanapala, from Sri Lanka.

Pakistan is reportedly considering fielding Nafis Sadik — Annan's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

Although Tharoor is considered a 'light candidate' in comparison to some others in the field, one of his advantages is that he has never served in the Indian government and thus does not have any national diplomatic baggage. He also has extensive knowledge of the internal workings of the world body, and is globally known through his writings.

India has indicated that its selection criteria for the top U.N. post includes four components: the candidate should have, "impeccable credentials; the broadest possible acceptability among the U.N. member nations; should be committed to U.N. reforms; and must be committed to the interests of developing countries."

According to a time-honored convention, the secretary-general position has not been held by any of the world's major political or economic powers, thus in the past ruling out nations like the U.S., Japan, Russia, France, Germany, India and China.

Traditionally, the 15-member Security Council recommends one candidate, who is then usually approved by the 191-member General Assembly.

New Delhi, before announcing Tharoor's name, had informal consultations with other major powers that produced positive feedback.

Some observers speculate that by fielding Tharoor, India might be compromising its bid for a seat on the Security Council. Tharoor denied this and said: "The two are not connected. India's bid for the U.N. Security Council membership is a long term goal that is linked to overall U.N. reform."

Tharoor's reported closeness to Annan, and that he belongs to the U.N.'s inner circle may in some ways prove to be a handicap for the Indian candidate.

Except for Washington, none of the other major powers has made any comment on Tharoor's candidacy. U.S. undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns said that the U.S. has the "greatest regard" for Tharoor, but has not yet made a decision on who it will back to succeed Annan.

"This is a decision that the President will make," Burns said, refusing to comment on other administration officials' statements regarding Tharoor's insider status. "I don't want to make any specific comment because that would not be fair to all the other candidates out there."

U.S. backing is critical for Tharoor's candidature. India has developed close ties with Washington, evinced by the recent civilian nuclear agreement, and by its criticism of Iran's nuclear ambitions. China has yet to comment on Tharoor, although it supports the move to select an Asian as the next secretary-general.

Win or lose, the urban Indian Tharoor has become a symbol of modern resilient India, who can achieve anything in the world with dexterity and hard work. On a recent familiarization trip to New Delhi, he was welcomed and feted by individuals and groups from across the political spectrum, without reservation.

If Tharoor does not make it to the top post at the U.N., there is always room for people like him in India.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for M.G. Srinath.