SHASHI ON SUNDAY: Kamalesh Sharma: He’s the right choice

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SHASHI ON SUNDAY: Kamalesh Sharma: He’s the right choice
The election of Kamalesh Sharma as Commonwealth secretary-general is a welcome development at various levels. First of all, because it places an able Indian at the helm of an important international institution, something we have not seen in a long while. Second, because it marks the successful culmination of a skilful and focused diplomatic electoral campaign by the government. And finally, because it demonstrates to the world that India is ready and willing to assume additional responsibilities on the global stage.

Kamalesh Sharma has not been well known to the Indian public; this will now deservingly change. I have had the pleasure of counting him as a friend for two decades, since we first met in Geneva when he arrived as a youthful Indian ambassador to the United Nations system there. Since then i have watched him at close quarters as a highly effective Permanent Representative of India to the UN in New York, as a respected and statesmanlike UN head of mission to newly-independent East Timor, and most recently as India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, where he has cultivated close relations across the political spectrum with the Britons whom India needs to advance its interests. He has a first-rate intellect, an eclectic set of passions from cricket to calligraphy, a direct and disarming personal manner and a beautiful and gracious wife, Babli. India could not have found a better candidate to offer the Commonwealth, and that institution is undoubtedly fortunate to have him steering its fortunes in the years ahead.

It is also gratifying that the government did everything right. It nominated an able candidate early enough so that others could not develop momentum before him. It ensured that the key members of the Commonwealth were consulted and brought on board at the very beginning, and that London, in particular, was supportive from the start. And it worked to canvass all 53 member states diligently and repeatedly, at both the political and bureaucratic levels.

One rival, from Malaysia, was sufficiently intimidated by the quality of the Indian effort that he dropped out well before the vote. The other principal contender was no pushover: I have known Michael Frendo, the Maltese foreign minister, even longer than i have known Kamalesh Sharma, and he is a young, smart lawyer with a modest and friendly diplomatic style who was certainly a formidable contender. Victory over him could not have been assumed, and wisely, it was not taken for granted by New Delhi. Given that the last time we ran a candidate for Commonwealth secretary-general (Jagat Mehta in 1979) we came a cropper, this was a sterling effort, even a model of its kind.

It helped, undoubtedly, that the world as a whole is now looking to India to provide global leadership on the multilateral stage. Few developments across the world have received as much attention in the chanceries of influential governments as India’s rise to economic strength in the last 15 years, and with that new-found prosperity and progress has come a revised set of expectations of our country. It is assumed by many foreigners that a self-confident and resurgent India would be prepared to play an even greater role in the world: just as Indian businesses are conquering foreign markets and taking over western companies, from Arcelor to Corus, so, too, might Indians take their rightful place in charge of international institutions. For many years New Delhi had been curiously diffident about projecting its own; the fear of defeat always seemed to prompt hesitation about putting forward possible candidacies. Once upon a time no fewer than three UN agencies were simultaneously headed by Indians – C P Srivastava at the bridge of the International Maritime Organisation, S S Gill at the cockpit of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and Arcot Ramachandran on the rooftop of the UN Centre for Human Settlements. Today, we only have the estimable Rajendra Pachauri heading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but that is a part-time job leading a technical committee, not a full-fledged international organisation. Other possibilities had opened up since the doughty Indian trio retired, but caution usually asserted itself – ”why bother?” contending with ”what if we lose?” Many foreign diplomats used to say privately that they were waiting for India to assert itself. With Kamalesh Sharma’s successful candidacy, we have done so, and other opportunities await.

Some highly-placed people in governmental circles in New Delhi had wondered whether the Commonwealth was an institution worth risking India’s prestige for. I have no doubt that it is. It has the great merit of being a multilateral institution bringing together countries large and small, rich and poor, black and white, from the global North and South, united by a common language. It is also blissfully free of vetoes from either of the two superpowers (one established, the other emerging) of the 21st century – no minor consideration since they are two governments who, for different reasons, might hesitate to share in the general enthusiasm for Indian leadership. As such, the Commonwealth will offer an able and articulate Indian secretary-general an invaluable platform to express an alternative vision of the world. The brilliant Guyanese Sir Shridath Ramphal demonstrated in the 1970s and early 1980s what an important voice a Commonwealth secretary-general can have in world affairs, far more than the mere head of a bureaucratic secretariat. Kamalesh Sharma has the experience, the wisdom and the ability to do no less.
Every thinking Indian, therefore, has reason to be proud of the news from Kampala last weekend, and to wish Kamalesh Sharma well as he puts a firm Indian foot forward in the global march to a better world.

Shashi Tharoor for Times of India

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