In an effort to stall the candidature of Shashi Tharoor, India's nominee for the post of United Nations Secretary General, Pakistan is likely to field Ambassador Munir Akram, currently its Permanent Representative to the UN, for the world body's top job, sources told Rediff India Abroad.
The sources said when Akram was buttonholed on Thursday during a briefing on whether Pakistan intends to nominate him, he had coyly said an announcement, if any, would be made in Islamabad.
Earlier, rumours were swirling immediately following New Delhi's indication that it would nominate Tharoor made official on Thursday that Pakistan would offer up a counter-nominee in its High Commissioner to London and erstwhile ambassador to Washingon, Maleeha Lodhi, or Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
While one longtime Pakistani diplomatic observer told Rediff India Abroad that Lodhi's name had some resonance since she "was South Asian, quite high profile, and a woman to boot," Aziz's name had no credibility as a viable candidate as "he is simply just a former banker."
The observer condescendingly dismissed Aziz as a likely candidate saying, "His only claim to fame is that he is close to [former US Deputy Defence Secretary and current World Bank President] Paul Wolfowitz and some in Pakistan call him 'Wolfowitz's poodle'.''
The sources said Akram had been preferred over Lodhi because of his considerable UN experience "and hence is very familiar with the UN system and can hold his own" with Tharoor, currently UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information and a close confidant of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan whose term is up on December 31, after a 10-year tenure in office.
Before coming to New York, Akram was Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN in Geneva, and has considerable UN conference experience and expertise, having attended scores of UN General Assembly and UN Security Council sessions, in addition to those of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Childrens Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and several others.
If Pakistan throws Akram's name into the ring, he will join other declared Asian candidates besides Tharoor: Sri Lankan Jayantha Dhanapala, considered the front-runner, who is currently adviser to Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse and a former UN Under Secretary-General for Disarmament and Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US; South Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ban Ki Moon; and Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai.
Also in the running reportedly are other non-Asian candidates although it is an Asian's turn to lead the UN under its traditional rotating system Kemal Devis of Turkey, who now heads the UNDP; former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski; and Latvian Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
Dhanapala has already been lobbying quietly with the US government, and last month visited Washington and met with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns and the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican. At a reception Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US Bernard Goonetilake hosted in Dhanapala's honor at his residence, the guests included the Washington elite comprising some of the movers and shakers in the Bush Administration, including former US Deputy Ambassador to the UN Shirin Tahir-Kheli, now a senior State Department official and close confidante of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
However, the US has refused to endorse any particular candidate, and one senior official told Rediff India Abroad when asked for comments on Tharoor's nomination by New Delhi: "Of course, we will carefully study all of the candidates, but it's still very early in the process and we will decide on whom to back at the appropriate time."
But other sources acknowledged privately that in the wake of the transformed US-India relations and the Administration push on various fronts to improve the bilateral relationship, there was a strong possibility that when the time comes for an endorsement, the US -- which has thus far been reticent to endorse India's candidacy for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council may decide to back Tharoor, and in some way alleviate New Delhi's hurt that Washington has not seen fit to support its bid for a Security Council seat.
Ironically, a few years ago, during the Clinton Administration's term in office, Dhanapala was considered a favourite of the US, particularly after the deft way he handled the permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in his role as presiding officer.
In fact, just a year before Annan got the post, Dhanapala was being touted as a potential UN Secretary General by the New York Times in a story by the then UN correspondent of the newspaper Barbara Crossette, to succeed Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was detested by the US but who was angling for a second term and was almost on the verge of pulling it off.
At the time, the US had told the African nations, whose turn it was to nominate someone from that region, that if they did not reach a consensus and do so quickly, Washington had its own man to support and that person was Dhanapala.
The African nations, following this veiled warning by Washington, expeditiously came up with the name of Annan who hails from Ghana then a longtime UN bureaucrat.
But now, in a Bush Administration averse to treaties like the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty the Clinton Administration's major foreign policy initiative Dhanapala's track record no more elicits the kind of support it did then, and US officials acknowledged that an Indian nominee like Tharoor would likely receive the support of the US because of the traction in the relations between Washington and New Delhi.
Dhanapala is expected in New York next week to continue yet another round of lobbying, but sources acknowledged that Tharoor's nomination had thrown up "a really strong competitor," compared to the others, that could significantly dilute Dhanapala's current front-runner status.
Some Sri Lankan sources, who conceded that they were caught quite by surprise by India's nomination of Tharoor, also indicated that they felt "somewhat betrayed". They said last year when then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had visited New Delhi seeking India's support for Dhanapala's nomination, India had remained circumspect, particularly since Dhanapala had presided over the permanent extension of the NPT over a decade ago an anathema to New Delhi which finds it discriminatory. But, India had given no indication that it would run a candidate for the UN Secretary General position even if it does not necessarily support the Sri Lankan candidate, the sources said.
The late Kadirgamar who was assassinated by the LTTE told this correspondent at the time during a visit to Washington that while India had not promised any support to the Sri Lankan request to endorse Dhanapala, there was also no indication that it would put forward a candidate, even though there were rumors circulating that Tharoor was a strong possibility considering his impeccable UN credentials and experience.
Tharoor was not considered a potential candidate during the previous National Democratic Alliance government since he had made some stinging comments in his lectures, interviews and writings, about the dangers of Hindu resurgence and what a threat it would be for the ethos and fabric of Indian secularism and plurarity.
But sources acknowledged that Tharoor the quintessential diplomat had effectively cultivated the Manmohan Singh government and endeared himself to the prime minister by visiting with him at least a couple of times.
If Dhanapala finally loses out to Tharoor, it would certainly be a huge disappointment for this diplomat with years of experience in arms control and disarmament issues, because at the time he was Ambassador in Washington, the US, after the Africans nominated Annan, strongly backed him to be the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, now headed by Mohamed El Baradei.
But at that time he did not have the support of his own government, headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga who refused to release him from his ambassadorial duties, and Dhanapala quit in disgust taking early retirement from the foreign service and for a time was with the Monterey Institute of Nonproliferation Studies, before being hired by Annan as Under Secretary General for Disarmament.