Indians in the UN System
You cannot throw a stone into the UN or its Specialized Agencies without hitting an Indian, but there are no Indians as chiefs in any of these bodies. Indians may do all the work and win approbation, but they continue to be sherpas and not summiteers. Even today, the highest level Indian in the UN system, Vijay Nambiar, is only the Chef d' cabinet, a glorified executive assistant to the UN Secretary General. None of the nearly twenty Specialised Agencies is headed by an Indian today, even though many Indians in key places may well be doing the work of these Agencies. After Arcot Ramachandran headed the UN Habitat in Nairobi many years ago, we have not been able to get a similar post even though we have highly qualified experts in many areas.
The reason for this sorry state of affairs is that we do not have a policy to create opportunities for deserving individuals to enable them to grow in the system. Even those who go fairly high do so by their own initiative and by pulling wires in the Government to gain support for one post or another. Many posts in the UN system are the preserves of different countries and the countries concerned plan the careers of successors in such a way that the jobs remain within the countries concerned or in the regional groups.
Even the Indian candidature for the post of the UN Secretary General was at the initiative of the candidate himself. The Government did not give any thought to finding a winnable candidate for the post and merely made Shashi Tharoor India's candidate after he decided to make a bid and influenced high places in India. Even after he became the official candidate, he did not get the whole-hearted support of those in the field and many of them were happy that he lost, as was predicted. It was argued that his candidature would stand in the way of reform of the UN and India winning a permanent seat in the Security Council.
The Asian Group in the UN is so diverse that there is hardly any possibility of agreement on a common candidate except on a rotational basis. There were already several Asian candidates, including Ban Ki-Moon when the Indian candidate emerged. Countries like Japan and Korea are able to get even posts considered preserves of other countries and groups by putting up candidates with relevant experience by keeping them in the mainstream for years. In our system, rotation is so sacrosanct that no individual is allowed to grow in any organisation beyond a few years.
Dr. Homi Bhabha helped establish the IAEA and his bust is still there outside the IAEA boardroom. But no Indian has risen to even the second level in the IAEA since then, though some of our scientists aspired to senior positions. Of course, our not signing the NPT had made several areas in the IAEA out of bounds for Indians.
The Indians who rise in the UN system are the objects of envy of their colleagues and every effort is made to get them back as soon as possible. Many diplomats have been forced to return to the country to protect their promotions in their own services, though now the Government is a bit more liberal in extending their deputation to the UN and other organisations.
We do not subscribe to the dictum that having Indians in high places in the UN system is helpful to India. Those who rise to these positions go out of their way to erase their Indian identity to become truly international civil servants. This is one of the reasons why those in the Government do not care to secure these jobs for Indians. Only personal networking enables them to get these jobs and the next time they look for the Indian ambassador is when they are due for a promotion or an extension. Most Indians in the UN system are no assets to the Indian missions accredited to them.
Most Indian PRs to the UN have managed to get positions in the UN, but not beyond Under Secretary General. None of them has contested for elected posts. Most heads of Specialised Agencies are elected and India is extremely reluctant to put up candidates. The myth is that contesting these posts will affect our chances for becoming a permanent member in the Security Council.
The World Bank and the IMF are even less democratic than the rest of the UN system because they operate on the basis of weighted votes. Even though we have good candidates and there is a general sentiment in favour of the highest jobs being made available to those outside the US or Europe, it will be very hard for India to get the top position in the IMF. India will be offered second or third positions as a compromise in the end.
There have been a few instances where it has suited the big powers to offer some high level positions to Indians. A few years ago, India got a very important post, but we paid a very high price for it by helping to bring down a fellow developing country head from another organization. Such deals may become increasingly possible, but we have to plan ahead and present acceptable candidates. No one gets top positions in the UN system by sheer merit. Major Powers should be made to develop vested interests in India or in certain Indians if Indians have to become chiefs in the UN system. Till then, Indians will be playing second fiddle or lead peacekeeping units under civilian bosses from the western world.