US has coddled many dictators; we’re no less virtuous’

Over a career of nearly 30 years as a diplomat at the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor has been a close witness to the workings — and occasionally cynical machinations — of Big Power politics.

In 2006, his own candidacy for the top job as UN secretary-general was ended by a US veto. After resigning from the UN as undersecretary-general in 2007, he contested another election — for Parliament as a Congress candidate — and won emphatically. And although an IPL franchise controversy 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 Venkatesan Vembu, he shares his
perspective as an erstwhile UN ‘insider’ on the substantive significance of US president Barack Obama’s announcement of support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

As someone who knows the inner workings of the UN and the power games that go on there, is Obama’s support merely symbolic or is it substantive?
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 a 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.

Obama said India has sometimes ducked its responsibilities in dealing with delicate issues. What does this imply?
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 globally engaged India have to bury the principle of non-interference in the 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 skillful diplomacy.


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