United Nations Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor has been named as India's candidate for the post of secretary general when the term of current incumbent Kofi Annan expires in December.
Since January 2001, Dr Tharoor has been in charge of the department of communications and public information, one of the largest departments at the UN secretariat, with some 750 staff and field offices in 63 countries.
Dr Tharoor accepted what was initially a temporary assignment as interim head of the much-criticised department, then stayed on to oversee a reform process that sought to streamline and professionalise what was seen as an ineffective and bureaucratic department.
In fact, his biggest victory in the post he currently occupies is that he became the first and thus far, only, secretariat leader to succeed in closing down UN offices in pursuit of the goal of streamlining its functioning. He accomplished this by shutting down eight UN information centres in Western Europe in the face of considerable political and bureaucratic opposition.
Prior to this assignment, he served as director of communications and special projects in the office of the secretary general (1997-2001), and as a senior advisor to the secretary general.
Before that, he was special assistant to the under secretary general for peacekeeping operations (1989-1996), an assignment that saw him lead the team in the department of peacekeeping operations responsible for UN peacekeeping operations in what was then Yugoslavia; and working with two successive heads of United Nations peacekeeping operations in managing peacekeeping activities at the end of the Cold War.
While all these assignments based him at the New York headquarters of the United Nations, his career with the world body began in 1978, on the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. He was head of the UNHCR office in Singapore (1981-1984) during the peak of the Vietnamese 'boat people' crisis.
Somewhere along the way, he also found time to write nine books, including the acclaimed India: From Midnight to the Millennium and a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as articles in a wide range of publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek.
The holder of a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA, where he received the Robert B Stewart Prize for Best Student, he was named 'Global Leader of Tomorrow' in January 1998 by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Awards include a Commonwealth Writers' Prize; he was named to India's highest honour for Overseas Indians, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, in 2004.
Dr Tharoor spoke to Managing Editor Prem Panicker in New York almost immediately after India's announcement of his candidature for the top post.
The Government of India has officially nominated you as its candidate for the post of secretary general -- but that is just the first step, right? What next -- do you have to campaign for election, in some fashion?
It does become a bit complicated, in the sense that it is the kind of post for which traditionally people have not campaigned very much. There hasn't been much campaigning for this post in the past. And I have a job to do here already.
But the truth is that the current candidates who are already in the race have been campaigning quite a lot already, so there is no doubt that one would have to do at least a little bit to make the case for oneself with member States.
What form will this campaigning take for you personally? Is it passive in the sense of merely making yourself available to interested parties so they can quiz you on your thoughts and your agenda, or is there an active component to it?
As far as possible I aim to do my normal work at the UN, while giving interviews and meeting government officials as appropriate. But if I need to visit a capital, I would of course take leave from my job for the time needed.
There is reportedly an unwritten coda that the post goes by rotation and that it is now the turn of Asia to hold it. Does that hold good?
It is an unofficial rotation, in the sense that the Security Council has a free hand to pick whoever they want to pick, from any of the member nations, and recommend that name to the Assembly. But in the last three or four elections, a pattern has developed that the post rotates.
Of the first four secretaries, three were European (the other being an Asian, Burma's U Thant, 1961-1971) -- but after the last one of those, Mr (Kurt) Waldheim (1972-1981), there has been Latin American (Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, who held office between 1982-1991) and two Africans (Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, 1992-1996 and the incumbent, Kofi Annan, 1997-2006), and so now it is time for an Asian again.
It is admittedly an unwritten convention, but the Asian groups and the African groups have both announced that they feel very strongly that it should be Asia's turn this year, and so while there is no question in anybody's mind that the UNSC is free to pick any candidate, it is widely believed that it would be Asia that would produce the winning horse.
That said, you are not the only Asian candidate in the fray.
Right, there is also a Sri Lankan, my friend Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN under secretary general and currently advisor to the Sri Lankan president, a Thai (Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai) and a Korean (South Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ban Ki Moon).
They have been campaigning for a while now -- the Thai has been campaigning for two-and-a-half years; the Sri Lankan for about a year-and-a-half; the Korean officially since Valentine's Day, but unofficially since last year -- so yes, there are a number of candidates in the fray, and the thing is all of this public electioneering is new to the UN, because in the past it was all decided behind closed doors with very little noise.
In that sense, this will be a much more open and transparent process than in the past. And this year, unusually, the president of the Security Council wrote to the president of the General Assembly, and through him to all member States, that the Security Council intended to sit in early July to consider names that had been presented to it by member states. This therefore put the onus on member states to submit names by the end of this month.
A recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine also named Kemal Dervis of Turkey, who heads the UN Development Programme; former Poland president Aleksander Kwasniewski, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia as other contenders for the job. Is there a sense that they are out there in the fray?
That's for them to say. The Council will, I am told, only discuss the names that are officially submitted to it by Member States.
Right, so anyway, June 30 is the cut-off date.
Actually, there is no such thing, it is all unofficial. The Security Council is a law unto itself, it can pretty much do what it wants, make up its own rules as it goes along. There is nothing written down in the UN Charter, nothing one can point to and say this is how it needs to be done.
The charter merely says the Secretary General will be appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council, and that is all it says. It doesn't say how the process should work. So what has evolved are practices and conventions, sort of like the British constitution -- the way in which the Security Council has conducted itself in electing a Secretary General over the years has pretty much become the convention, the accepted way in which things are done.
Is there any particular reason your candidature is being announced so late in the day? You did point out that your rivals have been in the field and campaigning for a long time -- doesn't entering the ring this late become a handicap for your candidacy?
Not necessarily: indeed many expect that others will yet emerge. In the most famous case, Mr Perez de Cuellar's name emerged for the first time the day before he was elected!
About the campaigning itself -- will the government be doing any of that on your behalf?
Only governments can nominate candidates, and normally that means they would also campaign for their candidates. Typically, the government asks its ambassadors to talk to the governments of member countries to which they accredited.
(Note: Government sources indicate that the Ministry of External Affairs has officially instructed all its ambassadors, especially those in the capitals of members of the Security Council, that Dr Shashi Tharoor is India's candidate for the post of secretary general of the United Nations, and asked the ambassadors to make the case with decision makers in the respective countries where they serve, and seek support).
When it comes time to pick, who exactly goes in there and votes?
The vote is cast by the 15 ambassadors representing the members of the Security Council, who normally act on the instructions of their respective governments.
(Note: The UNSC comprises five permanent members, namely China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and ten non-permanent members who are, currently, Argentina, Greece, Qatar, the Republic of Congo, Japan, Slovakia, Denmark, Peru, Tanzania and Ghana).
You are widely perceived as being close to the incumbent. With Secretary General Kofi Annan himself coming in for considerable criticism across many fronts in recent times, do you see this perceived proximity as a potential negative in your campaign?
It depends entirely on how people perceive the secretary general -- there are other people who value greatly what Kofi Annan has done.
I personally think he has been an outstanding secretary general, and I am proud of having worked with him in this administration.
I myself have a record of reform in the department I head -- restructuring it with a new operating model, closing offices in Europe, establishing a culture of evaluation and accountability: all accomplishments that I am proud to stand on, and which demonstrate that an insider can manage change by knowing how to make it happen.
As for the perceived negatives in relation to my own candidacy, this is about me, and if there is any particular criticism of my functioning in office, of what I may or may not have done, I am prepared to face them, to answer any questions the member states may have.
In recent years, there has been considerable criticism and extended debate of the United Nations itself -- do you think you might be inheriting a poisoned chalice, here?
There is no question that from the outside looking in, people might wonder why I even want to do this, why anyone would want to do this. To answer your question specifically, I have been with the UN since the age of 22, I have worked with the body for 28 years now, and I know its potential and its possibilities.
I've worked for refugees, in the humanitarian field, in peacekeeping at the end of the Cold War, in the secretary general's office and now as head of a large department. So as far as I am concerned, I have so much personal stake in the success of the UN that it seemed to me the right thing to step forward and say, I'd like a crack at leading it.
The single biggest criticism, of course, is that the United Nations is increasingly irrelevant in and to the modern world.
I could address that question at considerable length, really, but the short answer is that the UN is the one indispensable global body that we have in this world today.
The world is full of so many of what are called problems without passports, problems that cross frontiers and are not defined by boundaries geographic or manmade, problems so big that no one country, however powerful, can solve -- whether it is terrorism, or climate change, or human rights problems, refugee movements, drug trafficking, you name it.
In the world of today, you can pick so many issues that are by definition international problems or global problems, for which the solutions necessarily have to be international or global, and that is why the UN is so indispensable -- because it is the one institution we have that pulls every country together, to actually face the problems that confront us all, and at the same time gives us the opportunity to leverage the goodwill, the political will, and the resources of every country in the world rather than of just a handful.
So the UN, I believe, remains the best possible mechanism to tackle the world's problems.
Just to get a sense of your agenda -- given the power, what are the three things about the UN that you would change right now if you could?
There is no question that any organisation in the world that is run by 191 countries is a complex organisation to run, so one thing I would change is the extent to which the member states collectively play a role in micro-managing the day to day work of the organisation. It would help if those who are entrusted with the job of running the organisation were allowed to do so with a free hand, and that is something that should be judged by the results they deliver.
As a manager, I have personally experienced some of the frustrations of having one's hand, so to speak, tied as one tries to perform the functions of a manager, and that is one thing I would want to change on the administrative side.
The second thing I would ideally love to change, but which will be I think difficult to change, is the financial constraints that cripple the organisation -- because again, we are completely dependent on member states fulfilling their obligations to pay their dues in full, on time, and without conditions.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of members tend to pay late, to do so partially, and with a whole lot of conditions attached, and that means the organisation frequently goes through financial crises that a body that works for the entire world should not have to face.
These are both organisational issues, but the third thing, since you asked for three, would be much more about how the world functions vis a vis the UN. In the sense that I would like to see the world as a whole better able to respond to the kind of crises that confront the UN -- whether it is for example human rights violations on a colossal scale such as in Darfur, or whether it is the enormous calamities of nature such as the tsunami, the earthquake and so on.
The UN has a lot of accomplishments, but it needs reform -- not because it has failed, but because it has achieved enough to prove that it's worth investing in.
With all of these, the organisation needs to be better prepared to respond, but that is not just a question of having the money -- it is also having the political will of the countries to work effectively and in concert with the UN. I would like to help create a UN that is more nimble, more flexible, more efficient and more effective in facing the problems of the 21st century. So those are the three major areas I would like to change if I could.
Since you bring up the subject of internal reform, much debate recently has centered around the need for reform and reorganisation of the United Nations in general, and of the Security Council in particular, to reflect the realities of a changing world. Those are not part of the three-point plan -- would you want to comment on those issues?
I believe that reform and change are essential for the UN. Mahatma Gandhi put it best: 'You must be the change you wish to see in the world.' What is true for individuals is true also for institutions. If the UN wants to change the world, we must change too.
Security Council reform has been on the table since 1992, and member states have not yet agreed on a formula -- it is rather like a malady in which the doctors gather around the patient, everyone agrees on the diagnosis but they cannot agree on the prescription! I think reform is necessary but when it will occur, and what form it will take, depends on the member States.
Given your background, you could have become almost anything you chose to, gone into any field of activity you wanted to -- so when and why did you pick the UN as your lifetime career option?
I in fact did get into both the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) -- in those days, there were only two and I got into both of them. At the time, I asked myself seriously whether as an individual I wanted to judge the worth of each day lived by what I had achieved as a dollar-figure bottom line or a rupee-figure bottom line, and the answer, the honest answer to myself was no, that was not something that motivated me.
What did motivate me was the world at large, and the question of how I could possibly make a difference in it. Fundamentally, there are people who do very well in the private sector and people who are made for public service, and I have always seen myself as one of the latter. For me, it is in public service, grappling with issues that concern humanity at large, that I find the greatest satisfaction.
When we have talked in the past, your writing has always emerged as the leitmotif, the one indispensable adjunct to your existence. You have spoken of your frustration in not having sufficient time to write - and now, you are announcing for a job that will put time even more at a premium.
There is no question that there will be a very long suspension as far as my writing for publication is concerned. Even now, as under secretary general, I find it very difficult.
I am used to writing on weekends, but in this job the evenings were the first to disappear, then the weekends began disappearing, and there is the additional burden of travel, which I frequently tend to do over weekends in order to minimise time away from the office.
Even so, I come back to the office and I find I have to spend additional weekends catching up on all that has piled up while I was away, and that I couldn't deal with on my Blackberry -- so it has been very much the sense that the time available for ideas has pretty much vanished from my life.
The other complication is that with fiction particularly -- and I have for a long time now wanted to go back to fiction: I began a novel three Christmases ago which I haven't been able to touch since -- for fiction, you need not just time, which I do not have anyway, but a space inside your head to create an alternate universe, one populated with characters and issues and situations that are as real to you as the ones you encounter in real life. And the sad truth for me is that space isn't there in my mind right now.
That said, this election might well be the final catharsis: one way or the other it may resolve the dilemma of how and when to find time. If I win, I will have to put all thought of personal writing away for the duration of my tenure; and if I lose, I will have all the time in the world to write.