Vol. 5 Num 766 Sun. July 23, 2006  

Lighten Up
A place in the sun

THE late BK Nehru's was a long, eventful, and success-studded career of public service, at home and abroad. He was a product of the London School of Economics, where he was reportedly a favourite of Harold Laski. He qualified for the ICS, batch of 1934, in his third attempt, and went up to Oxford for service training. He also qualified as an Inner Temple barrister. He headed at different times the two highest profile Indian diplomatic missions, and held three gubernatorial assignments at home. He was perhaps fully deserving of the honours and high offices that came his way. Certainly his surname was not exactly an encumbrance to his career. He was not without a tincture of vanity in this respect either, and on one occasion, famously and nonchalantly, observed to Mrs. Vijayalaxmi Pandit, that the "Nehrus had much to be arrogant about." Mrs. Pandit presumably concurred.

There are varying versions of a story concerning BK and a very coveted international position, which he either declined or was dissuaded from accepting. He has recounted his own version or recollection in his very readable memoirs. The differences or details are perhaps not important. Very simply the bare facts, according to one version, are as follows.

When Dag Hammarskjold was so tragically killed in a plane crash in September 1961, the Americans had virtually offered the position of UN Secretary General to BK, or at any rate broached the matter of his possible acceptance of the position. BK declined and recommended instead to his government, any one of the two Sahay brothers -- Vishnu and Bhagwan, both eminent civil servants. India apparently did not attach priority to the issue and the appointment went to U Thant of Burma. Frederick Boland of Ireland, President of the 15th UNGA and Mongi Slim of Tunisia, President of the 16th UNGA were among the contenders for the post.

BK, by his own admission, later regretted turning down the post. One aspect of this story puzzled me; how could the Americans make an offer of a post, which was not in the gift of the US administration? An Indian friend, who had worked closely with BK in some national committee or other, clarified the matter some years back. Those were Cold War times, he explained; China was not on the Security Council, and relations between the USSR and India were extraordinarily close. It was a fair assumption thus that an Indian candidate, endorsed by the US would not have faced a veto.

At the time of independence, Pandit Nehru, delivered one of his best remembered and most impassioned speeches in Parliament, in which he spoke of India's tryst with destiny and that a pledge made years earlier was being redeemed, "not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially." Nearly six decades on, India has come a long way. It has made phenomenal strides in the spheres of economic and scientific development, and has acquired nuclear capability. What is more to the point India has received US recognition of its nuclear status, something the US has been to loath to accord to its long time ally and friend of "immediacy and constancy." Pakistan. India is also seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

It is expending every effort, considerable goodwill and resources in pursuit of the very position, which it disdained to accept when it was offered on the proverbial platter. Why should this be so? Is it, in effect, a signal that India has arrived and is prepared to assume its rightful place in the sun?

The Indian candidate for UN Secretary General, Shashi Tharoor, has very persuasive credentials. He is a Kashmiri Brahmin married to a Bengali. He studied at St Stephen's College, which produces the bulk of India's elite corps of administrators and diplomats, where he won the Rector's Prize for the best under-graduate student at Delhi University in 1974. St. Stephen's list of distinguished alumni, incidentally, includes the late President Ziaul Haq of Pakistan.

Tharoor's stay at St Stephen's coincided with the aberration of Mrs. Gandhi's emergency rule in India. It was not an easy time and not too many civil servants distinguished themselves during what was for many a most harrowing ordeal. Tharoor decided at that time that a career as a civil servant was not for him. From Delhi Tharoor went to Fletcher's School in the US, where he continued to excel academically, winning the Robert Student Prize for the best all-round student. His meteoric rise in the UN system owes largely to Kofi Annan's patronage.

When the historic Babri mosque was wantonly pulled down, in the presence of law-enforcement personnel and the media, Tharoor wrote a thoughtful and civilized op-ed article that was carried by the New York Times. He recalled his boyhood days, when a sense of tolerance was so integral to the Indian psyche and ethos. Tharoor clearly has many sterling qualities. And yet there could be reservations about his candidature.

Article 97 of the UN Charter describes the Secretary General as the chief administrative officer of the Organization, who shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. The use of the word "appointed" and not "elected" was deliberate, although the process of appointment is indistinguishable from an election. Perhaps the intention was to keep the post secluded from the less savoury and divisive aspects of "electioneering."

Some big names were mooted -- Paul-Henri Spaak, Anthony Eden, Lester Pearson and Eisenhower -- before the choice for the post fell on the lower profile Foreign Minister of Norway, Trygve Lie. Since then a convention of sorts has evolved that a major power should not seek the office. The first three Secretaries-Generals, Lie, Dag and U Thant, were appointed without canvassing or campaigning, at least of an overt nature. U Thant was the most apolitical of the three and had a modest vision of the Secretary General's role. He was nevertheless held in high esteem in the UN. In 1965, at the UN's 20th anniversary celebrations, the British PR to the UN, Lord Caradon paid him an extraordinary tribute.

Caradon conceded that none could rely on the infallibility of any individual; U Thant was a person though, on whose total integrity one could rely. U Thant's relative lack of political savvy or gumption, however, may have led to one mistake, the consequences of which are being felt even today. But more on that later.

After U Thant, there was a radical change in the process of appointing the UN Secretary General. There was no longer a discreet search for an acceptable candidate, or a quiet vetting of his credentials. Instead, candidates, duly endorsed by their respective countries, openly canvassed for the job. Waldheim bested Max Jakobsen of Finland and Carlos Ortiz Rojas of Argentina, to succeed U Thant. In retrospect, few would disagree that the job did not go to the best candidate, and it is an irony that a former UN Secretary General does not qualify for a visa to enter the US. Of those who followed Waldheim, Perez de Cuellar was quietly competent, if also somewhat nondescript, Boutros-Ghali did not get the customary second term, and Kofi Annan will probably go down as a forgettable Secretary General. He means well, but as Theodore Roosevelt once said of his successor, in a feeble sort of way. If Annan is at all remembered, it will be for the opprobrium of son Kojo's financial shenanigans. All this does reflect, and not favourably either, on the "quality and spirit of the appointment process."

Elections are assuredly indispensable for any functional democratic polity. It may not be the ideal method though for the appointment of the UNSG. Sir Brian Urquhart started his career with the UN at the time of the Organization's inception, and retired decades later as an Under Secretary General. In an article in the Foreign Affairs in 1995, he forcefully argued that a selection process without an open search procedure, with a list of aspirants restricted to those who had declared themselves, was anything but satisfactory.

In any serious institution in the private sector, such a procedure would be considered a bad joke. A candidate's stature, leadership and administrative qualities, negotiating skills, diplomatic finesse and integrity should take priority over political expediency, power and influence. Sir Brian thought it a miracle that the existing process had not produced an outright disaster. He might not be alone in desiring change in the selection process; it would be unrealistic though to imagine that any change is round the corner. This aspect, however, deserves to be included in any agenda for UN reforms.

Political gravitas is an asset, almost a requisite, for anyone holding or aspiring to high office, whether at the national level or at the apex international organization, the UN. Two instances would underscore this point. The Prime Minister of India is possibly the most academically accomplished of all heads of State or Government in the world. And yet the imagination boggles at the thought of his leading the struggle against colonial rule, in the manner of the Mahatma, Motilal, CR Das, Maulana Azad, Mohammad Ali, Jawaharlal, Subhas and even the unabashedly communal Vallabhai.

U Thant, as mentioned, was the most apolitical of the first three UNSGs. His achievements though were considerable. He ended the UN involvement in the Congo, played constructive roles during the missile crisis of 1962, and the Indo-Pak war of 1965, and, on his own, made "spirited efforts" to end the Vietnam War. Justly or harshly, however, he has been blamed for precipitately pulling out the UN peacekeeping force from the Sinai in 1967, a decision that led to the Six Day War. The UN peacekeepers were placed on the Egyptian side of the border with Israel after the Suez War. It was the first UN peacekeeping operation proper and had kept the peace for a decade. In 1967, President Nasser demanded that the peacekeepers be pulled out. The situation was grave, and U Thant went personally to Cairo to urge Nasser to reconsider. Nasser was adamant and U Thant complied; war followed soon after.

To U Thant, moral considerations were paramount. Peacekeepers could only stay with the consent of the host country. Israel had refused UN forces on its side of the border. Troop contributing countries were anxious for their nationals not to be placed in danger. No group or bloc of countries took the initiative to involve the Security Council or the General Assembly. U Thant did report matters to the UNSC but without response. According to his close colleagues, Sir Brian and CV Narasimhan, U Thant had no option but to act as he did. And yet doubts persist. Could a UNSG with greater political weight have been able to dissuade Nasser from his decision? Could he have delayed matters till the situation was defused? When disaster, in the shape of war, looms, surely legal niceties or norms should not be an impediment to attempts to avert it.

U Thant's example would suggest perhaps that only a person of sufficient stature could work to enlarge the role of the UNSG. As envisaged by Dag, he may 1) function to fill up the gaps that exist in the Charter, and 2) working at the edge of human society, promote the creative evolution of human institutions. Hence the importance of political gravitas, an attribute not usually associated with a civil servant, national or international. This is an area where Tharoor is untested and untried, an unproven quality.

Article 100.1 of the UN Charter is very specific that the SG and his staff, in the performance of their duty, are not to receive or seek instructions from any authority external to the UN. They are to refrain from any action, which might reflect on their position as international officials answerable only to the UN. Article 100.2 stipulates that Member-States would respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the SG and his staff.

Did Tharoor directly broach with India his nomination for SG? Or did he perhaps merely send a discreet feeler, in the manner of "Barkis is willin"? Would such conduct be consistent with the letter and spirit of article 100.1 of the Charter? Tharoor's nomination may also have been purely an Indian government initiative. Would this conform to article 100.2 of the Charter? To be sure Kofi Annan himself was an Under Secretary General when he was appointed SG. There are other similar instances in some of the UN Specialized Agencies. Flawed precedents, however, do not make good law or practice. The question is does an international civil servant by soliciting or accepting the nomination of his country for a higher and virtually elected post compromise his neutrality? And more so when the nomination involves canvassing for support from other States, and attendant expenses that may be defrayed by the nominating country.

At the national level, permanent civil servants in most countries are expected to be politically neutral and may not seek elective office unless they resign as civil servants. In 1969, when President Zakir Husain passed away, the Congress nominated Sanjiva Reddy to succeed him. Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi broke with the official nominee to support Vice President VV Giri for President. Giri had assumed the responsibility of Acting President, but promptly resigned -- something he probably did not need to do -- to contest the election. The British, incidentally, conferred a knighthood on Sir Brian only after his retirement from the UN.

One can think readily of at least two Indians, who would make credible candidates for the post of UNSG, and to whom the constraints in respect of Tharoor would not apply. Amartya Sen enjoys a global and moral stature that is rare. He has written extensively about issues that fall within the purview of UN activities. He would surely give priority to development issues in the UN agenda. Development is a worthy end in itself, and is also the most effective means to underpin peace and security. There is also the liberal, Cambridge-educated Mani Shankar Aiyer, who opted out of the coveted Foreign Service for a career in politics. He would bring to bear 26 years of experience in diplomacy and the political gravitas of a Union Minister. His writings -- columns and books -- would suggest that he is as committed as anyone to the ultimate aims of the UN "a new comradeship, a universal fellowship, a world communion, a deeper understanding and the peace that passeth all understanding."

ASEAN has a convention by which all members rally to an ASEAN candidate in any international election or appointment. Countries of South Asia, it would seem, have some way to go before it can catch up with ASEAN in this respect.

Megasthenes is a columnist of The Daily Star.
Amartya Sen, Shashi Tharoor, Mani Shankar Aiyer