The US has coddled many dictators; we’re no less virtuous: Shashi Tharoor

(This interview with former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, in the context of US President Barack Obama’s recent articulation of US support for India’s candidacy for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, was published in DNA edition dated November 13, 2010.)

Over a career of nearly 30 years as a diplomat at the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor has borne up-close witness to the workings – and occasionally cynical machinations – of Big Power politics. In 2006, his own strong candidacy for the top job as UN Secretary-General was ended by a US veto. After resigning from the UN as Under-Secretary-General in 2007, he contested another election – for Parliament as a candidate of the Congress – and won emphatically. And although an IPL franchise controversy – and, some would say, his cheery disdain for political correct-speak – forced him to resign as Minister of State for External Affairs, Tharoor remains an articulate champion of India’s interests in forums around the world. In an interview to DNA’s Venky Vembu, he shares his perspective – as an erstwhile UN ‘insider’ – on the substantive significance of US President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of US support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and the contributions that India could make to global governance. Excerpts:

As someone who knows the workings of the UN and the power games that go on there, would you say Obama’s offer of support is merely symbolic or is it substantive, with the prospect of meaningful reforms?

It’s certainly symbolic, but it’s also more than symbolic. Once the US takes such a position, it’ll have to amend the instructions given to its envoys in the General Assembly, who are participating in the discussion on an expansion of the Security Council, to support India’s case. That’s an important substantive change. I gather that the US has spoken to other key permanent members of the Council and other leading countries to convey its support for India’s case. That too is substantive. 

However, India won’t benefit in isolation. India will benefit when the Council as a whole is reformed. That process won’t happen overnight. It requires two things: a formula that must be voted upon and approved by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly: a minimum of 128 countries. So far, such a majority has been elusive for any formula. Secondly, the UN Charter can only be amended when it has been ratified by the parliaments of two-thirds of the member-states, including those of all five permanent members. So, there are two hurdles to be crossed. The US coming on board is an important change, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, guarantee anything.


What will India bring to the high table of global governance?

It’s a bit unreasonable to ask that question of India if you’re not asking it of any of the other members! Initially, the logic of permanent membership wasn’t about what they brought to the table, but that as prominent world powers of the day, they had a stake in a world order and that a meaningful international order would be inconceivable without their participation. What was true of those five countries in 1945 is truer – or at least as true – of countries like India and others today. To speak of a ‘high table’ that excludes a country like India makes no sense in the geopolitical reality of 2010, even if it made any sense when we were a colony in 1945.

So, first, it’s recognition of India’s importance in global geopolitics. But India isn’t saying we want it only as recognition; we’re saying we want to contribute – and we have contributed over the last 60 years of the UN’s existence in ways that are superior to contributions made by the existing permanent members. We were a major player in the anti-apartheid struggle and a leading force in the movement for decolonisation. All the way down from those activities of the past to contemporary activities like UN peacekeeping and contributions to the UN’s Democracy Fund, India has been in the forefront.  Our track record suggests we’ll continue showing that kind of cooperation to the added responsibility that comes from being a permanent member.

In his address to the Indian Parliament, Obama said India has sometimes ducked its responsibilities in dealing with delicate issues. Does Indian policymaking have to undergo any transition to prepare for a greater role in global governance?


I don’t think India has ducked its responsibilities any more than the US has! I’m all in favour of showing some idealism in foreign policy in places like Myanmar, but considering how many military dictators the US has coddled in our neighbourhood, it’s very difficult to argue that somehow that’s more virtuous than India’s policy in Myanmar.

Will a more globally engaged India be required to bury the Panch Sheel principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries?


No, because we’ll be engaged only in issues where there are threats to international peace and security. We remain in principle opposed to engaging or interfering in the internal affairs of countries. We have a certain respect for state sovereignty principles, arising from our colonial experience; we’ll maintain that principle. Obviously we’re not foreclosing any options: India has always had the flexibility to look at situations on a case-by-case basis. But there’s no blanket abandonment of that principle.

Indian diplomacy on international fora like the WTO is criticised as artless ideological grandstanding. Does it now have to ‘up its game’?

I’m not one of those who is complacent about India’s diplomatic skills or its ability to function effectively in the world, but I don’t think India has done too badly over the years. And its own track record suggests a real capacity to make an impact through effective and skilful diplomacy.

How well is India equipped to play the ‘power game’, which some have likened to a rite of passage into ‘adulthood’?

I think India will consider itself to have been a fairly adult player in the world for quite some time! India has been on the Security Council five times before, and will be starting a sixth time starting in January. The responsibilities exercised in the Council are those that it’s familiar with. All that a permanent seat – if granted – would convey would be a longer duration of presence on the Council.

What about the right of veto power?

India has taken the position that, right now, it is willing to forgo the veto. In fact, it’s been of the view that the veto is a bad thing for anybody to have. It recognises it can’t do very much about those who already have it, but has not chosen to make that practice worse by insisting upon that right for itself.

Pakistan says it will persuade China to veto India’s bid. Will it work?


No; the system is very clear. We have a vote in the General Assembly, and of course Pakistan is free to vote against it if it wishes to. And then it requires ratification by two-thirds of the member-states, including the five permanent members. We don’t have any reason to believe Pakistan alone can succeed in raising either of these two obstacles.

What about China, which has a strategic relationship with Pakistan, and the veto power?


I think that China will, as a major power, make its own decisions and is unlikely to make it on the basis of the wishes of any particular country.

More  – much more! – on Obama’s visit here.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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3 Responses to The US has coddled many dictators; we’re no less virtuous: Shashi Tharoor

  1. Pingback: Round-up: Barack Obama’s India visit | It's only words…

  2. Hariharan says:

    India, which is today trying hard to get a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, even without veto power as Tharoor suggests, had refused it in 1952 in favor of China — a gift of Nehru! The least bright among Indian politicians alive at that time would not have done that. Nehru had no vision and no concern for the India’s own strategic interests with his refusal to accept a US offer for a second time again in 1955 for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, back then held by Taiwan. Nehru “insisted” that the seat be given to China. So much for the shiny intellectualism of the Congress Party in leading India on the world stage.

    In hindsight, it was good that Shashi Tharoor did not go on to become the top dog at the UN. It is indeed difficult for the Secretary General to take sides on important issues. And that would have made it even harder for India to make its case. India’s positions on Iran and Afghanistan make a lot more sense and is also in the best long-term interests of the US, in stark contrast to the stupidity coming out of Washingtonian think tanks. Tharoor has correctly pointed out that an imploding Pakistan is a nobody on the world stage. It is high time for India to put behind Pakistan-centric politics and media. That diminishes the value potential of projecting India as a global power. India has also not worked hard enough to strongly articulate its positions on Iran and Afghanistan to bridge the gap. There’s a lot of learn from China on the diplomacy front.

    The UN is an important body and India will most certainly remain a top contender. Until then India should focus on its role in the G20 where most of the action is taking place.

  3. Pingback: Obama, we were streets ahead of you in engaging Myanmar | Firstpost

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