An Unsuitable Boy: Shashi Tharoor, India and the UN Secretary-Generalship

June 27, 2006

Barkha Dutt of NDTV is, arguably, the best TV journalist in the country today — tough, polished, very au courant, incisive and unafraid to call a spade a spade, not easy to overawe. But even she seemed to be overwhelmed by Shashi Tharoor. The only thing I've seen that comes close is when BBC's Tim Sebastian interviewed the redoubtable Nina Simone. It's the first time I'd seen the man — who can be thoroughly obnoxious — completely non-plussed. While Tharoor is no Simone (thank God, but that's not for want of his trying), nor Dutt Sebastian (double thanks for that), she certainly seemed to be under his spell.

That's really the trouble with Tharoor. He's able to weave a spell with his suave manner and debonair looks. So much so that it's difficult to distinguish the personality from the issue he claims to represent. It doesn't help that he is an incorrigible self-aggrandizer, and blurring that boundary eminently suits his purpose.

Tharoor has thrown his hat into the ring for the next UN Secretary-General's post. He lobbied hard recently in New Delhi, cutting across the spectrum of political idealogies. This doesn't say much for any ideal he may claim to represent, but rather a lot about his ambition. His responses to Dutt were, almost without exception, directed only to this end, including saying at one point that the records of several nations must be replete with records of his fine work.

Arguably, there are two views on that, especially his stand on the US policy in Iraq before and during the onset of the Iraq war. I think he had a real chance there, but tripped over his ambition and politically nimble feet.

That apart, there is one very compelling reason India should not support his candidacy. By convention, none of the permanent members of the Security Council have ever had one of their nominees as the Secretary-General. That makes a lot of sense, given that the each of the permanent members has a veto. To have both the veto at one end and your nominee initiating proposals at the other could upset what is clearly a very delicate balance.

India deservers a place on that Council, and sooner rather than later.

Let's not kid ourselves about it, or be swayed by Pakistani rhetoric. Financially, India is second only to China now in terms of GDP growth and well ahead of the others, including many western countries. International business interests in India are huge and perhaps on less shaky ground than even China. India is a nuclear power. The balance of power in South Asia very largely depends on India's continued political stability and ability to marshall forces at short notice. None of this can be wished away. None of this should be sacrificed to the personal ambition of one man, no matter how good, competent or dedicated he may be. If Tharoor is in the top spot at the UN, India's chances of getting a place on the Security Council evaporate.

When Dutt put this to Tharoor, his answer was to say that the last time he checked, India was not on the Security Council, so what was all this brouhaha about? Also, he said, although of Indian origin, as Secretary-General, since he wouldn't be taking instructions from New Delhi, he wouldn't be answerable to India, but to all the members of the UN.

From a man of Tharoor's intelligence, the first answer is not just naïve. It is the sheerest chicanery. Let me put it like this: if Tharoor gets what he wants, then the next time he checks, India still won't be on the Security Council. And the second answer is — and Tharoor must know this --at one level thoroughly irrelevant. That is precisely the reason why the permanent members haven't put forward their nominees. Unless, of course, Tharoor thinks that different rules apply to him than did to every other Secretary-General. At another level, it is blatantly untrue. Were it true, Tharoor would not have to lobby New Delhi. Like all circular reasoning, this, too, serves but one purpose.

Surely this must cast a shadow over the suitability of his candidacy. Here is a man who is willing to use his considerable felicity of language and personal charm to bend public opinion to further his personal ambition. In his own mind, there is no distinction between his ambition and the future of the UN. How can he be expected to put the institution before himself?

tharoor.jpgThis is really a double tragedy. If Tharoor was less full of Tharoor, more truly independent and less given to posturing, he might indeed be a worthwhile candidate. He is intelligent, he is accomplished, he is eminently clubbable and easy to like in limited doses. But his hubris keeps getting in the way.

A casual visit to his website makes one squirm in embarassment. There is a flashy flash movie intro, complete with portraits. More photos of himself are in a dedicated photo gallery, all prominently flaunting that ridiculous and extremely déclassé haircut (or lack thereof). There are reviews of his books. There are lists of his books. There is a glowing bio that tells us (among other things) that he got his PhD at the age of 22.

Now there is a separate section devoted to his campaign for the top job at the UN. I don't understand this at all. Why should a man in his position have a personal website at all? And worse: this one is described as the "official" website of Shashi Tharoor. Are there unofficial websites? Fan clubs? Roadies? Is this a diplomat we're dealing with here or a pop star?

And then there's his writing. I picked up Bookless in Baghdad a few months ago, because I thought the title was arresting (Tharoor does have a way with words). But all enthusiasm was assassinated on page one of the preface.

Bookless in Baghdad is a collection of my essays on literary topics, which have appeared in a variety of publications over the past decade. They span a broad range of concerns emerging from my own experience as an Indian writer (and reader!), but they share a literary provenance: none of my writings on non-literary subjects have been included. All the essays have been written for the layperson rather than the academic specialist.

Well, well. This is truly an accomplishment. In the span of three sentences of reasonable length, we are told that Tharoor is a prolific writer and voracious reader; that his (literary) essays have appeared in many publications; that he has been writing these for ten years; that he has wide-ranging interests and concerns; that this is but a sliver of his oeuvre; and that he is capable of putting out literary essays fit for academia (which I seriously doubt).

It gets better. Somewhere in the next paragraph, we are solemnly informed that "this volume seeks to assemble my ruminations on aspects of the literary experience that go beyond any single book". Whatever that means. But note, please, that you are in the presence of a Presence now. Unlike the rest of us lesser mortals, Tharoor does not just think. He ruminates. And he is unafraid to say so, and say it often.

I am truly glad that in this view of Tharoor and his writing, and particularly BiB, I am in excellent company. The San Francisco Chronicle carried an excellent review of the book some time in 2005. Here is an extract from that review:

As he puts it, in his new collection of essays titled Bookless in Baghdad, "My novels are, to some degree, didactic works masquerading as entertainments."

Concerned, perhaps, that the disguise was too good, Tharoor has included three expository postscripts (one per novel) within the first five pieces of the book. These involve a lengthy explanation of the role of a 2,000-year-old epic as a vehicle for modern satire, a defense of pop cinema as a serious subject, and some thoughts on conflating fiction and nonfiction. All are topics of inherent interest, but not when harnessed for self-promotion, and Tharoor steps quite heavily over this line.

In pieces reprinted from a dozen publications over the past decade, Tharoor makes frequent reference to the "raves" his work has received, unabashedly rejects more critical assessments, laments the shortage of time his day job allows for his writing and indulges in an exuberant confession that "there is nothing quite like the thrill of publishing a book." Moments such as these make for squeamish reading once around and become downright repellent in repetition. Because of an unfortunate editorial decision to publish the essays unexcised, the reader is lectured on the "responsibility of the creative artist" not once but thrice in near-verbatim passages (it has to do with Moliere, edification and cultural identity, by the way) and will be reminded regularly that "the very word novel implies that there must be something 'new'." I don't begrudge a belle lettrist his bon mot, but I don't relish being able to finish his pretty phrases for him.

It's a shame that Tharoor has focused so much of his talent on unnecessary self-approbation, particularly as it eclipses some stellar essays on subjects just as germane to his literary vision.

Today, unfortunately, that penchant for building the Tharoor brand-equity is likely to come at too high a price, certainly for India and possibly for the rest of the world.

Thank you, but no thank you, Mr Tharoor. Get a haircut instead. You can even write a book about that. How about Hairless in Harare?

Just another fella with strong views
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June 27, 2006
07:18 AM

Quidam, well-written take on the issue. Nice turns of phrase: "But all enthusiasm was assassinated on page one of the preface." and "But note, please, that you are in the presence of a Presence now."

June 27, 2006
10:00 AM

Thanks Sujatha!

June 27, 2006
12:04 PM


welcome to DC...enjoyed your post:)

hairless in Harare?...subliminal inspiration?

June 27, 2006
01:15 PM

Hey Q - as someone who has frequently squirmed with embarrassment on reading mr. tharoor, may i say i thoroughly enjoyed reading this. :)

barkha dutt
June 27, 2006
03:17 PM

Hi.. a friend told me about this post... naturally embarrassed to hear myself described as "overawed"...(( didnt think i was, but then...)))...but the post was interesting.

June 27, 2006
03:35 PM


nice to see you here

would you like to be a desicritic?

barkha dutt
June 27, 2006
05:15 PM

and what exactly is a desi critic?? pardon the ignorance?!

June 27, 2006
05:42 PM



me bad!....CLICK on this

shashi tharoor
June 27, 2006
09:56 PM

can I join desicritics too ?

June 27, 2006
09:59 PM


June 27, 2006
11:09 PM


My apologies if I gave the wrong impression, but I didn't say you were overawed. When I said that you seemed to be 'overwhelmed' (whereas I was very seriously underwhelmed), I only meant that I did not hear the hard questions.

It was nothing you said, actually, just the overall much-too-cosy atmosphere of the interview, and the sense that he was dominating it almost entirely. Honestly, I even felt a little offended. The Barkha Dutt I know (from the box) packs a wallop and can kick 'em determinedly in the goolies when the occasion demands, and yet balances all that with a rare compassion for those who do not have a tongue. I waited for you to ask him whether he thought his publicity machinery would be counter-productive to his campaign. Also, I expected a follow up question to his reply on the conflict between his campaign and India's. I didn't get either. If I missed something, my apologies, again.

But I stand by the first sentence of my post; except that I would remove the 'arguably'. :-) I don't know if anyone has said this to you yet, but thank you for your work, and, with a small handful of others, being an island of sanity in an ocean of madness.


Why can't Tharoor join DC? Might make for interesting times. How do we have any meaningful debate if we do not permit opposing views? Besides, it's only fair, IMHO. I chose this forum to write a piece against Tharoor, his work and his methods. Surely he is entitled to an opportunity to reply and defend himself in the same forum, and not be driven elsewhere? Please do re-consider.

June 27, 2006
11:53 PM


that is all very well. but how do we know that it is actually Barkha dutt and Shashi tharoor themselves and not someone pulling a prank here ;)

June 28, 2006
12:30 AM

Who are we kidding?? India is not gonna get a permanent seat in the security council for at least another decade. So why not get our candidate in the secretary general's position.

June 28, 2006
01:02 AM


We don't, actually, but why not take it at face value? You've got to believe in *something*!


I can't buy into that. Very possibly you may be proved right. But is that a reason for not trying? And, on the other hand, taking a step that will *ensure* that we don't, ever?

Shantanu Dutta
June 28, 2006
04:36 AM

Quidam ,

All that you say about Shashi Tharoor is true , but to be fair to him , isnt this culture of smnoth, suave , yet unabashed lobbying for what you want not the way these days. Canvassing is bad if you are applying to be a clerk with the Government of India , not if you aspire to be the world's top civil servant.

Prannoy Roy
June 28, 2006
05:13 AM

Barkha.....do you think I pay you those big bucks to goof off on obscure internet forums ? You are so fired...

Barkha Dutt
June 28, 2006
05:20 AM


You can't fire me !! I QUIT !!

So there.

June 28, 2006
05:33 AM

Quidam, that was the official site of the 'author' Shashi Taroor. So you didn't need to squirm in embarrassment. Even Dan Brown and JK Rowling have official sites. (if that makes you feel better ;) )

I agree with your other points on why he shouldn't be security general. We might miss out on the permanent member opportunity.

June 28, 2006
07:20 AM

Drac, actually the website is not limited to his books or role as an author, despite the plug to the contrary in the title tag of the site. There's an entire section devoted to the present campaign. See this link. I know that many, if not most, authors have websites today, and there's nothing wrong with that. But this site isn't limited to authorship; and, besides, there are sites and there are sites.

June 28, 2006
07:27 AM

Hee hee hee ... if that's really Prannoy Roy and Barkha Dutt ... Besides, big bucks can't buy everything: notice that it's these 'obscure' forums where people like Barkha get overdue encomiums, something that doesn't seem to be happening over at ndtv.com! Or is the green-eyed monster poking his proboscis around Prannoy's portal?

June 28, 2006
09:18 AM

Quidam # 11:

there was an icon following the mono syllable comment

(btw everyone is welcome to register and comment)

barkha dutt
June 29, 2006
04:33 PM

Bit weird to see someone else talking in my voice ( this is my reservation about all these internet spaces where people impersonate other lives or don false identities)...however.. to move on.. Quidam ( is that your name or code for something?)... i wasnt offended in the least by your critique... I suppose I didnt approach it as a hard, confrontational interview, more as a foreign policy story...if that makes any sense at all.. It wasnt my sense that there was a scandal to uncover there.. despite ones views on the nomination...

In the meantime your post is kind to me on other fronts.. thank you.. it isnt always easy...this mad profession...
p.s did i really get fired?!!!

June 29, 2006
04:41 PM


Bit weird to see someone else talking in my voice ( this is my reservation about all these internet spaces where people impersonate other lives or don false identities)...

understand your reservations

did you click on # 8?

an advantage of membership is your 'nick' can only be used by you...of course we extract our pound:)...you'll have to submit interesting articles

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