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'The world economy is in trouble'

Last updated on: September 24, 2011 23:37 IST

Nikhil Lakshman reports from the United Nations General Assembly, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed on Saturday.

Like participants on Indian Idol, leaders who appear on that grand annual reality show that is the United Nations General Assembly need to locate themes and tones that will make the most impact on the judges -- occasionally world opinion, but mostly audiences back home.

There are some who do Outrage well. Most notably, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Muammar Gadaffi of Libya and, of course, that long-running act featuring the diminutive Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Normally persona non grata in the United States, these leaders of a rather tyrannical disposition can visit New York every year to attend and address the UN General Assembly, an opportunity which Messrs Chavez and Ahmedinejad have used to denounce America.

Chavez -- who revealed hitherto unknown talents as an exorcist during one infamous UNGA address, detecting what he described as the green sulfurous vapours of the Devil in his nemesis George W Bush -- is not here this September, recovering as he is from cancer.

Colonel Gadaffi -- who made his one solitary appearance during a 42-year career last year, delivering such an outrageous speech that it had the UNGA president, a Libyan, hold his head in shock -- is currently in hiding from his would-be captors.

Ahmedinejad, who has been marginalised by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei this past year, delivered his now expected assault against the US on Thursday; only this time, his rhetoric, which has rarely deviated from its bizarre conspiratorial content these last seven years, was so predictable that it didn't attract the usual shocked coverage and opprobrium.

It helps, of course, to be the American President, whose appearance at the UNGA inevitably attracts the kind of attention that Justin Beiber would draw on American Idol. Even if the President turns in a performance -- that Dr Singh's best pal did during most of his turns at the UNGA, demonstrating why he was, as the late lamented Texas columnist Molly Ivins once said, a shrub, rather than a Bush -- he is guaranteed extensive newspaper and television coverage.

Battered in the polls and increasingly looking a one-term President like Jimmy Carter and Papa Bush, Barack Obama delivered a well-crafted speech (though I have never understood why this devotee of the Teleprompter is rated the best speaker of his generation) on Wednesday, an address much scrutinised for the not-so-neat pirouette he executed on Palestinian statehood, which he had promised to endorse just a year ago. Now seeking the Jewish vote, Obama can't be seen to back the Palestinians, no matter how just their cause.

It helps, of course, to be the Man in the News, as Mahmoud Abbas was this week. Even though the speech the leader of the Palestinian Authority delivered on Friday lacked Obamaesque flourishes, his cry for UN membership for his people -- even if the road ahead is tortuous and uncertain -- drew the biggest applause at the 66th General Assembly.

We Indians don't do soaring rhetoric.

Even a Master of Political Oratory like Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an unfamiliar figure at the UNGA podium, eschewing the dramatic for the measured and somber State-of-Our-World address that Indian leaders prefer when they address the General Assembly.

Ironic, when one of the two most dramatic images from the UN archives feature an Indian leader.  On January 23 1957, V K Krishna Menon, then India's ambassador to the UN, spoke to the Security Council on India's right to Kashmir for almost eight hours, refusing to stop speaking even after he collapsed from exhaustion. (The other image is Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at his delegate's desk in the General Assembly in October 1960, an incident that merits both a Google search prompt and a Wikipedia entry.)

No one would ever expect such drama from Dr Manmohan Singh.

Saturday's speech was his fourth address to the UNGA since he became prime minister in May 2004. It was the longest speech he has delivered since his first speech almost seven years to the day, on September 23, 2004. His speeches of 2005 and 2008 would not have challenged the 15-minute limit that leaders are usually given for their addresses.

This time, Dr Singh did not deviate much from the themes he set out in his previous UNGA speeches -- highlighting the diabolic threat of terrorism; the many challenges of globalisation; the urgency for an expansion of the UN Security Council (which provoked applause from the Indian section); the need to tackle poverty and improve the lives of the wretched of the earth; the need for a nuclear weapons-free world, invoking again as he did twice earlier Rajiv Gandhi's action plan for a nuclear-weapon-free and non-violent world.

Interestingly, the last time Dr Singh was at the UNGA, in September 2008, the American economy was days away from meltdown. As the American and European economies now lurch perilously to collapse, the only first rate economist to rule a country in these troubling times declared, "The world economy is in trouble. The shoots of recovery, which were visible after the economic and financial crisis of 2008, have yet to blossom. In many respects the crisis has deepened even further."

The prime minister's 21-minute address was delivered in his mild, just-above-a-whisper, style, but it had a couple of zingers that Western allies like the US -- which has cited its unhappiness with India's positions during the nine months it has been a member of the UN Security Council -- will find rather unpalatable.

After expressing that India is looking forward to "welcoming Palestine as an equal member of the United Nations," Dr Singh fired a fusillade at the NATO intervention in Libya and the American anxiety to bring about regime change in Syria.

"Societies cannot be reordered from outside through military force," the prime minister declared. "People in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future."

One member of the audience would have been pleased by that observation -- the prime minister's youngest daughter Amrit, a New York civil rights lawyer who took on the Bush administration on the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Amrit was present in the audience on Saturday, along with her husband, New York University law Professor and Ann Urowsky visiting professor of law at the Yale Law School, Barton Beebe.

The last time one spotted Amrit, who keeps away from the limelight like her Delhi-based sisters Professor Upinder Singh and Daman Singh, was at the state dinner that Obama hosted for her parents at the White House in November 2009.

Seated in the row ahead of her at the UNGA was her mother Gursharan Kaur, flanked by Professor Upinder Singh and Nirupama Menon-Rao, India's ambassador to the US.  Shooting a video of his grandfather's speech was Upinder's young son who has traveled with his mum and grandparents to New York.

Outside the UN -- where Dr Singh worked for three years in the late 1960s, riding the subway from his home in suburban Queens -- a motley crowd of Sikhs brandished placards denouncing the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom after Indira Gandhi's assassination and shouted pro-Khalistan slogans. Occasionally, they would shout slogans at Dr Singh, the first Sikh to be prime minister of India, whose brother-in-law was slain during those horrific days in November 1984.

Read and Compare Dr Singh's UNGA speeches: 2004 | 2005 | 2008 | 2011

Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on Saturday, September 24, 2011.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Nikhil Lakshman in New York