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Home > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

Hard to imagine UN without Shashi Tharoor

March 30, 2007

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I cannot remember when I heard the name, Shashi Tharoor, first, but I clearly recall that one of my missions when I went to the United Nations in 1990 was to get his autograph on a copy of The Great Indian Novel for my son, who was at the St Stephen's College in New Delhi, Shashi's alma mater, where he was already a legend. My autograph hunt led to a friendship, which spanned our respective diplomatic, scholarly and writing careers and covered three generations of Tharoors and Sreenivasans.

What distinguished Shashi from the other senior Indians in the UN Secretariat even in the early years of his career was that he was not paranoid about asserting his international personality to the point of erasing his Indian identity. He has always been an Indian in his social and food habits, not to speak of the themes of his writings. He saw no contradiction between his integrity as an international civil servant and his involvement with India.

As the point man for Yugoslavia in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations under Kofi Annan, he was easily accessible to the Indian mission and was ready to advise us on our role in Yugoslavia, particularly after General Satish Nambiar took over as the commander of the UN forces there. Even on other issues of interest to India, he did not hesitate to advise us as a UN insider. This was in sharp contrast to even former Indian diplomats, who tended to distance themselves from the Indian mission once they joined the UN.

Shashi's writings and my reviews on them kept us in touch after I left New York. Even when I was critical of certain aspects of his books like Nehru and Bookless in Baghdad, he responded warmly and took pains to explain his rationale and logic. For instance, I was surprised that he criticized some aspects of Nehru with the wisdom of hindsight. His scathing words about R K Narayan ('Narayan's was an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare') and his words about a lady who commented unkindly on his sartorial taste were uncharacteristically harsh.

His continued rise in the UN hierarchy and his move to the Department of Public Information at a time when the image of the UN was at a low ebb fascinated me as I watched the UN from Washington and Vienna. He was our guest in Vienna when the news of his elevation as Under Secretary General was received. It was a particular joy to introduce him to a Vienna audience in 2002 as 'the newest, youngest and the handsomest Under Secretary General at the United Nations.'

As an international civil servant, Shashi Tharoor was engaged in beating swords into ploughshares, but it was his felicitous pen that brought him fame and ascent in the UN bureaucracy. UN documents are notoriously boring as they come out of copy editors and translators, but UN files must necessarily have a wealth of his good writing. That he was able to maintain his style even after poring over 'UNese' for the best part of the day was nothing short of a marvel.

He burnt the proverbial midnight oil to be in the world of fantasy, fiction and research to keep a steady flow of literary and social writings. He did write about international issues, but much of his writing was on India and his creative writings had India as their locale and Indians as heroes and heroines. His Sunday column in The Hindu made his a household name in India.

Shashi appeared to keep the UN business and writing pleasure apart, but in his mind, New York and New Delhi were not too far apart. India and Kerala have been part of his very being. His joint effort with M F Husain in producing a coffee table book on God's Own Country was monumental. Shashi's prose in the book is as magnificent as Husain's elephants frolicking with Malayali maidens. Both as an insider with Kerala blood in his veins and an outsider, who lived most of his life abroad, he brought unique insights about the life in the state. He spoke impeccable Malayalam, though he could not read or write his mother tongue.

My first article in The Times of India entitled 'India Can get the Top UN Job' was written without any consultation with Shashi. In fact, he was grateful that I stopped short of naming him in the article. He had not made up his mind and had no clue about India's views on his possible candidature. In subsequent articles, I argued, firstly, that Asia would get a chance to nominate a candidate only once in 50 years and India should put forward its best candidate, regardless of his chance of victory. Secondly, in Shashi, we had an outstanding Indian, who had the necessary international reputation without the handicap of having been identified with Indian policies, which did not always endorse the UN position on issues such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dispute settlement. Thirdly, India's efforts to secure permanent membership of the Security Council had suffered a setback and the international community should have an opportunity to consider the representative of a resurgent India for the top post.

Making Shashi available to the UN was part of our international responsibility. It was up to the UN to consider his credentials. I was delighted when the Government of India not only endorsed Shashi's candidature, but also decided to promote it as its own.

India's candidature for the post of Secretary General was not without its critics. The main argument was that it would jeopardise India's chances to become a permanent member of the Security Council. Since permanent members, by tradition, did not put forward candidates for the Secretary General, it was pointed out that aspirants to permanent membership too should not stake a claim. But since India was not on the point of becoming a permanent member with veto, this was not a valid argument. That India should contest only if victory was certain was also unreasonable. Even if Shashi had not contested, there was no chance of a unified Asian candidate.   

The campaign soon unearthed the heavy odds. Shashi was identified too closely with Kofi Annan, whose reputation had suffered towards the end of his tenure; he was seen to be too smart and independent to do the bidding of the permanent members. By the time Shashi entered the race, the other candidates, particularly the South Korean, had made much headway. At least two permanent members were known not to be too enthusiastic, as he did not fit the image of an ideal Secretary General that they had in mind. A different campaign strategy or greater vigour by the Indian missions would not have made any difference. Non-aligned solidarity could not be sustained in favour of India. But his remarkable performance, better than that of some favourites of some permanent members, brought credit to him and to India. Neither India nor Shashi should have any regrets.

It is hard to imagine a United Nations without Shashi Tharoor. He himself must have felt the pangs of separation from an organization, to which he had given his best in his first fifty years. But his next fifty years may well be more rewarding for him, for India and the world.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.


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