Shashi Tharoor has a fantasy. It is to follow the Indian cricket team on a tour of the Caribbean. But chances are, this googly-on-golden-sands pipe dream is going to remain just that for a while. Tharoor barely has time to talk these days after India announced that the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information was its candidate to replace Kofi Annan at the United Nations. With several other high-profile candidates already in the pool, from South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-moon to Sri Lankan diplomat Dhanapala Jayantha, Tharoor is a bit late off the starting block. But in some ways he’s been preparing for the job much longer than anyone else. After 28 years in the United Nations, the notoriously fast-talking diplomat is ready to cap off his career with the grandest prize of all—what he admits will be the “summum bonum of my life’s work.”
THE KID YOU WOULD LOVE TO RESENT
When Shashi Tharoor first joined the United Nations, he thought he would do it for a year or two and then head back to India to a life of journalism. His father was in the media and Tharoor grew up devouring seven newspapers a day. “He even used to read the newspaper that packages came wrapped in,” marvels his younger sister Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan, who lives in San Jose. He once set himself a goal of reading 365 books in 365 days and made his deadline before Christmas though, he does admit, “some of the books were short and I can’t pretend to have retained everything.”
If he wasn’t reading, he was, his sister remembers, “impersonating sports personalities with running commentaries on the latest test cricket match. His renditions, with all the appropriate cheers, were almost as exciting as the real matches.” There were debate tourneys, extempore speech contests. Add to that word games like Twenty Questions, story circles with each person adding on to the previous person’s story, or a “rousing chorus of The Scaffold Lily the Pink,” and car rides with Shashi Tharoor were “always fun,” says his sister. But she also remembers he had no tolerance for “careless speech.” “I remember if I ever used the word ‘nice’ to describe someone he said it was ‘damning with faint praise,’” she says. “He did set the bar high.”
All in all, the man who would be secretary-general might just have been the kind of boy who would have been held up by adoring aunties to their offspring as “Why can’t you be more like Shashi?” Tharoor readily admits, “I was one of these kids that I am sure other kids had every reason to resent. I was just very good at taking exams.”
But goodness comes with its pitfalls. Tharoor wasn’t interested in science but unfortunately very good at it. His parents, not surprisingly, harbored fantasies of Shashi, the doctor, or Shashi, the engineer. But, Tharoor explained, he hated science. He told them, “The day I have taken the exam I forget everything I’ve learned because it doesn’t really interest me.”
What he wanted to study was history. That the Jesuit school star pupil and gold medallist, and a Senior Cambridge five-pointer might want to study history was unheard of. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi was so startled by their unlikely student, they waived their entrance exam.
His parents, while admiring his academic prowess, still didn’t know what to make of their son who could do anything but chose to study about dead kings. “They said, at least take the entrance exams to the IIMs because that’s a way to make some real money in this world,” he recalls. Tharoor dutifully obliged, and like a bad habit, managed to get into both IIM, Calcutta and IIM, Ahmedabad, topping the list in one and coming second in the other. And then he chose to chuck both to go to America, where the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy had offered him a scholarship.
His parents were not thrilled, but, Tharoor says, “they were generous enough not to press me in a direction I might have hated.” By then he knew that he was “interested in public issues and public policy, and not motivated by the bottom line.”
But fate, he says with a chuckle, had the last laugh. His twin sons are double-majoring in Yale and both of them have chosen history as one of their majors. “It seems they are also not very interested in anything that is likely to earn them a fraction of what I spent educating them,” says their father.
THE MAN WHO LEFT HIS THUMBPRINTS ON HISTORY
When Tharoor came to the United States his dream was really to get a taste of life in America before returning to India and sitting for the Indian Foreign Service examination. His grandfather, a schoolteacher, had a dream that his oldest grandson would be the collector of his district. But Tharoor, with his seven-newspapers-a-day habit had set his sights on a bigger world.
But history had a way of upsetting the best-laid plans of mice and men. Mrs. Gandhi declared Emergency in India. Tharoor describes that as “a disillusioning period” as he sat in America reading reports of a country of forced vasectomies, muzzled newspapers, and jailed leaders. “I felt I couldn’t really serve that kind of system,” he says. He chose instead to stay on in the United States and get his Ph.D.
At that time his school organized a field trip to the United Nations. The official who briefed them told Tharoor in no uncertain terms that Indians were already over-represented in the world body and he had no chance of getting in. But while he was in India, Tharoor had met Virendra Dayal, a U.N. official from the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who had been impressed by something he had written for The Statesman. They had kept in touch and it was Dayal who asked the newly graduated Tharoor if he was interested in working for the UNHCR.
After interviews in New York and Geneva, Tharoor jokes, “they had spent so much money flying me around, they had to hire me.”
Once again history intervened. The Vietnam war had ended and the seas were flooded with streams of fleeing humanity on rickety boats armed with little more than their dreams. A naïve young Indian man suddenly found himself heading the UNHCR office in Singapore, dealing with one of the most dramatic exoduses of the 20th century.
It changed his life. “I was really in a position to leave my smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history,” he says.
Suddenly he was dealing with real people, “not abstractions in reports.” And he was learning a whole new meaning to the phrase “job satisfaction.” “I was able to have the enormous satisfaction of putting my head to my pillow at night knowing the things I had done during the day had made a real difference to human beings’ lives,” he says with some pride.
Now he looks back at people growing up Canadian or American or Australian, and knows that their new lives come because he was “able to persuade immigration officials to bend the rules and take them.”
Most indelibly, he remembers one family with a baby, floating on the sea after the engine on their boat died. They were out of food and water, subsisting on rainwater and hope. “The parents slit their own fingers and got the baby to suck the blood in order to survive,” says Tharoor. When they were rescued by an American ship they were so weak they could hardly stand. “To see that same family a few weeks later, healthy, well-dressed, and setting off for a new life in the United States was an extraordinary experience,” marvels Tharoor.
It also showed him in dramatic personal detail the power of the United Nations. “NGOs, church groups, compassionate individuals, can all do humanitarian work but only the U.N. can get a government to give permission to a ship to offload refugees or get countries of resettlement to take them,” points out Tharoor. “I realized the U.N. wasn’t just a means of bureaucratizing our consciences.”
But the power, he was soon to realize, had its limits. When he found himself in charge of peacekeeping in the Balkans in the 1990s, Tharoor was also the hapless face of the United Nations as 7,000 people died in ethnic cleansing in Srebernica—the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Ten years later, Tharoor said, those tragic events “continue to haunt us.” Now, he says, he realizes what he was doing was little more than “putting Band Aids on festering wounds.” But most humbling was the realization that the United Nations was not Superman. He could pluck babies out of the South China Sea and send them off to a new life in Westminster, Calif., but in the Balkan mountains “you could work 18-hour days and seven-day weeks but the blood would still flow.”
The United Nations in the end is not a miracle worker. Peacekeeping, says Tharoor, needs three things: “a mandate that is credible and realistic; resources—human, military and financial—commensurate with the mandate; and political will.” The bitter lesson of the Balkans was that the first two do not exist without the third. If there is political will, the mandate and the resources will follow. Unfortunately, says Tharoor, august as it is, “the U.N. has no political will of its own. The only will is that which comes with governments.”
All 192 of them. Which leads us to the upcoming elections. Why would one man want to serve 192 bickering masters? Tharoor laughs and puts it down to “a tremendous sense of loyalty and dedication to an organization in which I’ve spent most of my adult life.”
THE OLD BROOM THAT CAN SWEEP CLEANER
Therein lies both his biggest asset and his biggest liability. He’s an insider, too close to Kofi Annan, say his critics. Can the consummate inside man reform the United Nations, or will he just be another silver-tongued bureaucrat? Wouldn’t a new broom sweep cleaner?
“I believe an old broom can actually sweep cleaner because it knows where to sweep and how to sweep,” says Tharoor without missing a beat. The man for all seasons at the United Nations says everyone talks glibly about reform, but “you can’t bring in the chairman of General Motors and expect them to reform the U.N. because within six weeks they will retire in frustration. The complexity of an international organization is such that a rank outsider will find an extraordinarily steep learning curve to surmount,” he says frankly. Especially when the first thing you learn about the United Nations, he says, is “everyone is in favor of reform in theory but not in their own backyard.”
While all of that makes logical sense, the fact of the matter is the United Nations has not been getting the best press these days. The oil-for-food scandal in Iraq tainted it, and Kofi Annan’s much-vaunted millennial goals to reduce world poverty are lagging far behind. To top it all, one of its fiercest critics, the abrasive John Bolton who infamously once said if the top 10 floors of the United Nations were lopped off no one would miss them, is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It seems unlikely that the drumbeat for reform is going to stop anytime soon.
Tharoor acknowledges this and ticks off his reform credentials for the doubters. He has headed one of its largest departments, with over 750 staff and offices in 70-plus countries and completed “a successful re-orientation of the department, a new mission statement, a new operating model, concentrating on a new client orientation, introduced an evaluation council.” He’s also done something he says few U.N. officials can put on their resume—closed down nine offices and consolidated several others in Western Europe. And he knows that a “new secretary-general will have to do that much more with that much less.” Much less. Tharoor says, contrary to popular perceptions, the United Nations is hardly the “well-funded pampered bureaucracy of the 1950s lore.” Even when he gets invited to speak, he usually has to ask his hosts to spring for his ticket—“that’s how badly off we are.”
It seems it’s going to stay that way for a while. Not only is the agency financially evermore squeezed, members notoriously are delinquent with their dues. Unlike other member-only clubs, however, no one gets booted here or loses their bar privileges. Though member states duly vote every year to pay their dues in full, on time, and without condition, when the bills come due on Jan. 30, barely 30 out of the 192 have paid up. “The rest trickle in through the year, often not in full, certainly not on time, sometimes with conditions,” says Tharoor. Short of “naming and shaming,” he confesses he doesn’t know what the secretary-general can do. Even that can be counter-productive since he would still have to work with the countries he’d name and shame.
This, he says, is the rather unique challenge of the United Nations—it is, to borrow a theatrical metaphor, “both stage and actor.” “We are a stage where member states can play their own parts, declaiming their divergences and their convergences,” explains Tharoor. “And we are an actor in the shape of the secretary-general and his agencies and staff who have to go out and implement what people on the stage agree to. Now, of course, the actor has his own conscience, his own talents, his own abilities to implement things better or worse.”
But the audience, it seems, isn’t that happy with the script or the production. Tharoor admits that the United Nations’ stock is generally down. He cites a Pew poll taken in 2003 in 20 countries that showed the U.N.’s image had gone down in all of them since the Iraq war. In the United States, it had gone down because the U.N. had not supported the Bush administration’s position on the war. “It had gone down in the other 19 because the U.N. had failed to prevent the war,” says Tharoor. “So we disappointed both sets of expectations.”
More recently, during the strife in Lebanon, the United Nations again found itself attacked from both sides. It was criticized in the United States and Israel as defending Hezbollah’s actions. But angry Arabs stormed its Beirut offices, setting them on fire, because they saw the United Nations as agents of U.S. and Israeli interests. It can be frustrating to be the eternal whipping boy but Tharoor sees a little bit of a silver lining. “It also shows that we are seen by both sides as a repository of their hopes for justice and a fair deal,” he says. “And as long as we are seen as that, we have a fair chance of trying to fulfill those hopes.” It reminds him of another U.N. secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, who 50 years ago said that the United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save mankind from hell. “That’s sometimes the best we can do,” says his would-be successor. “Alleviate problems rather than solve them.”
But the problems themselves have multiplied like Hydra heads since Hammarskjöld’s days. In what Tharoor calls the “post post-Cold War disorder,” 192 nation states are confronted with “problems without passports—climate change, terrorism, epidemics and diseases, drug trafficking, money laundering, all sorts of new problems that no one country or one group of countries, however powerful or rich are going to be able to solve on their own.” This is a new world where non-state actors like Hezbollah can be more powerful than any of the states represented in the United Nations. That again, says Tharoor, is not new. He remembers the “kids on crack holding Kalashnikovs in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the early 1990s. We have dealt with drunk people high on Slivovica on barricades in Serbia and Bosnia in the 1990s.”
The United Nations, he says, is uniquely positioned as a “global organization in a globalizing world” to coordinate the “international cooperation” that will be needed to tackle all these problem that respect no sovereign boundaries. But first, says Tharoor, the United Nations has to realize that it’s still “a 20th-century organization facing 21st-century problems.” The closest he comes to a campaign pledge is when he promises that he will make the United Nations more “streamlined and efficient with a culture of ethics, transparency, and accountability.” Perhaps, he says, some tasks can be outsourced to Singapore or Chennai. Perhaps the United Nations can avail of modern technology better.
THE IDEALIST WHO ATE 16 IDLIS
That all sounds good but seems rather overwhelming when he ticks off everything the United Nations has on its plate even without the emergency eruptions of wars, insurrections and famines. The United Nations has started a democracy fund to promote democracy and it’s not “just a Western tool,” he is quick to point out. India, in fact, is one of the largest donors to the fund. There is a peace-building commission that was created this year to make sure conflicts don’t reignite as soon as the peacekeepers leave, as happened in East Timor. A new Human Rights Council has just gotten underway. Then there are all the old items still stubbornly on the to-do list—global poverty and the challenge of development. As he looks at all the things that will be competing for the new secretary-general’s attention, he just reminds himself of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous saying: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world. If we at the U.N. want to change the world we had better change too.”
Brave words, but can even a renaissance man for all seasons like Tharoor—journalist, novelist, self-confessed cricket nut (he sneaks looks at crickinfo.com during crucial matches in the middle of busy working days)—really accomplish all this? This is a man who, his sister Shobha remembers, once ate 16 idlis in one sitting. But could he now be biting off more than he can chew?
Tharoor is optimistic because he says he is “both a realist and an idealist.” To him that’s the only way one can make it in the United Nations. “If you don’t have ideals you might as well go off someplace and make some money doing something else,” he says. But you have to be realistic enough to “pursue those ideals within the framework of what is possible in the real world.” He knows he will be “constantly facing the limits of the possible, but I would rather work for an institution that is anchored in the real world and can therefore deliver results in the real world.”
And when he’s delivered those results maybe then he’ll have time to follow that old “cricket nut” dream, born no doubt “of the occasional adventurous 3 a.m. binge at the home of a friend with a satellite connection to watch a crucial World Cup game,” of following the Indian cricket team to the Caribbean and just relaxing and watching the game. Would it be okay for a U.N. secretary-general to be rooting for the Indian team? “Kofi Annan has been praising the run Ghana made at the soccer World Cup. So I think there is a good precedent,” quips Tharoor.
Maybe if Condoleezza Rice can be tipped to head the NFL, it’s not so far-fetched that Shashi Tharoor might one day end up leading the International Cricket Council.
But not just yet. He has another innings to play. As India’s candidate for U.N secretary-general goes out to bat, his sister watches her etta (older brother) with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. “I thought immediately of my father,” she says. “Daddy would have been so proud.”