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Tweeting is better than sending a press release: Tharoor

By Aziz Haniffa
October 19, 2009 11:54 IST
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Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor recently made his first foray to the United Nations -- where he had served for more than two decades as Under Secretary General of Communications -- over two-and-a-half years after his unsuccessful bid for the position of UN Secretary General.

In an interview with's Aziz Haniffa, Tharoor, who held extensive discussions with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, said the latter had endorsed India's initiative for a comprehensive UN convention on international terrorism.

How does it feel to be back at your old haunts at the UN and specifically, what is the purpose behind your first trip to the US after being elected a parliamentarian and appointed Minister of State for External Affairs?

It is terrific to be back. In the two-and-a-half years since I left the UN, I have actually not set foot in the building even though I've been in New York many times since then. So, returning not as a sort of ex-staff member, casting a shadow on the desk of my former colleagues, but rather as a representative of the government of India, was tremendously satisfying and it was made all the more so by the extraordinary warmth of the welcome I received from everyone -- from security guards all the way up to the Secretary General himself.

What were some of the issues at the top of your agenda in your discussions with the Secretary General?

I raised the question of our attempts to get through a comprehensive convention on international terrorism, which we've been attempting to do for eight or nine years and we've had various difficulties. We believe we've made some real progress in the negotiations.

We are expecting a new text and I wanted to get the Secretary General's sense of how things are going and to get his assurance of cooperation in putting his moral authority behind a settlement of this most outstanding issue. He has promised to be helpful in that area. Getting that through is an extremely important and necessary step to have a comprehensive convention.

Did he endorse India's efforts?

Yes, he did. He said, 'Tell me who I need to speak to on your behalf and I will do so. I will tell them this issue is very important for all UN'. It was a nice message.

Similarly, I discussed Afghanistan, and obviously the Kabul bombing (of the Indian embassy, 18 months after another suicide bombing at the entrance of the Indian embassy there) is on our mind. But we are interested in finding out what the latest thinking is about the election -- the second round -- even whether there will be a second round in the counting process currently and so on.

We discussed climate change, where he has personally played a very active role, and how we will work forward to try and get some progress towards Copenhagen and in Copenhagen.

We discussed the overall question of UN peacekeeping. India has a long and proud history in peacekeeping as you know. We talked about India's immediate neighborhood, particularly the situation in Sri Lanka, which the UN is very actively involved in. We have a very similar view on the way forward in Sri Lanka, and more briefly, we spoke about Nepal.

So, it was a very extensive and substantive conversation covering a lot of ground. I also asked him about the G-20 Summit, which he had attended along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and I also asked how he envisaged the relationship between the United Nations and the G-20.

Why? What's the significance of this relationship, and what's it to India?

There is an issue…we are worried that the lack of progress in the reform of the United Nations and the Security Council might result in other organisations acquiring the sort of authority that properly belongs within the UN itself.

Did the UN chief agree that the recent attack near the Indian embassy was yet another tangible manifestation that urgently called for the expeditious ratification of the convention on international terrorism that India has been trying to push through for years?

He saw it as one more example of the need for decisive international action against terror. It was after I raised the question of the comprehensive convention on terrorism that I segued into Afghanistan.

And, on Sri Lanka, was there a meeting of the minds regarding the internally displaced persons? The UN has been very concerned about these IDPs, who have been languishing in these camps for several months, and the slow process of facilitating their return home?

We do have very similar views on this. We have been very concerned about the IDPs -- essentially Tamils -- about 300,000 of them are in camps. The monsoon is about to descend, and we are very anxious that people should be returning home and resuming normal lives -- sooner rather than later. We understand some of the difficulties that Sri Lanka is facing in this regard and that is why we, the government of India, have also taken specific measures to assist in overcoming some of the problems.

We are not disregarding the concerns of the Sri Lankan government. We are just helping them to overcome these concerns. But, we would be unhappy if there were any extensive delay in the return of people to their homes because we believe that this is a sine qua non for being able to get on with normalcy and normal lives in the region.

We also share a view that political progress in terms of dialogue with the Tamil people and keeping the promises for devolution and so on are important so that the Tamil people can be -- to be completely fully at home in the united Sri Lanka -- feel a place of honour in their own country and there should no longer be any reason or justification for a sense of discrimination or oppression as was felt in the past.

Was there a total concurrence of views that you expressed with the Secretary General?

Absolutely. I mean, on all the issues, frankly, there is very little difference of opinion between the Secretary General and ourselves and between the UN Secretariat and the government of India.

(Alleged mastermind of Mumbai terror attack) Hafiz Saeed has been released once again in spite of all the assurances by the Pakistan government. Hasn't it become a case of the Pakistanis giving New Delhi the run around in terms of their commitment to bringing these perpetrators of the 26/11 terror attacks to justice?

We are certainly very concerned -- concerned for a number of reasons. First of all, that it's a bit preposterous to suggest that there is no proof when you are talking about the man who founded the two organisations that are in the spotlight and both of which he led, and both of which have been proscribed by the United Nations Sanctions Committee as terrorist organisations.

To say that you cannot establish any complicity between this gentleman and the actions of the organisations that he founded are frankly a bit specious. The second worry we have is equally important. This man is now free to wander around Pakistan, delivering sermons of hatred -- inciting hatred against India -- and at the same time is free to provoke and exhort murder and mayhem in our country as he has done in the past.

Third, as we know from the confession of Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of the 26/11 massacre, we know that Saeed was involved in giving broad directions to these terrorists, and even religious sanctum, for going out and perpetrating cold-blooded crimes.

So, we believe that there is a great deal that the gentleman ought to be accountable for and we are frankly dismayed that Pakistan has simply let him go free again, instead of exacting some sense of responsibility for the blood that he has on his hands.

Are you disappointed that the United States doesn't seem to be putting the kind of pressure on Pakistan that one would expect, beyond simply calling for these guys to be brought to justice?

We have no complaints with the US. The US' bilateral relationship with Pakistan is independent of us, just as our relationship with the US is independent of Pakistan, and that's how it should be. We've also never objected to Pakistan getting external help, including American help, to deal with the home-grown problems in its midst.

And, we certainly feel that if American assistance can be used for two good purposes -- number one, to crack down on terrorism within Pakistan and number two, to promote the development and well-being of the Pakistani people -- both those are objectives that India has no difficulty with and we are very happy to applaud that being done and we will be encouraging America and others to help our neighbour in this way.

What we don't want -- and the only thing we don't want -- is for assistance to be misused as previous assistance has been misused for the acquisition of weaponry and ammunition and planes and missiles and tanks and so on, to be used exclusively against us. Our problem has always been that the hypothetical notion of an Indian threat -- even though there has never been, in the 62-year-old history of India and Pakistan, any reason for India to threaten Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the bogey of an Indian threat has been used by the Pakistani military establishment to shore up its weaponry and the use of assistance intended for other purposes and this is only to be deplored. That is our only concern.

We have a lot of respect for the US; we have friends in Washington who see the situation quite clearly, they understand the dangers that India and the region face from the Frankenstein monster that has run out of control in Pakistan, and there is no doubt that we have a common diagnosis of many aspects of the situation.

So, there is no complaint against the US, but there is an encouragement for them to monitor the way in which their assistance is being used and spent by their friends the Pakistanis.

Your brief also includes the Middle East, Recently, one of Saudi Arabia's most powerful and influential figures Turki al-Faisal had suggested in an op-ed (in the International Herald Tribune) that President Barack Obama prevail upon India and Pakistan to fix the Kashmir issue. He predicted that this would help in the progress of his (Obama's) Af-Pak policy and that Saudi Arabia can play a supporting role in this endeavour. What is your take on this?

We have made very clear to anybody who would listen that Af-Pak is all very well, but Af-Pak is Afghanistan and Pakistan and has nothing to do with any aspect of India. And, this position is clearly understood and accepted in Washington both by President Obama and by his envoy (for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard) Holbrooke.

As far as Kashmir is concerned, we are perfectly capable of handling that situation, both by ourselves and as appropriate, in dialogue with Pakistan. Obviously, that dialogue at the moment is on hold because we are requiring Pakistan to do two very simple things that they have not yet done after 26/11. The first is to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to justice and the second is to dismantle the infrastructure of terror from which these attacks on India have been launched.

And since so little progress appears to have been made on either count, it is difficult for us to speak in terms of restoring a dialogue, but our longer-term commitment is very much towards peaceful dialogue. We have a broader vision of the larger picture of the subcontinent. We see no interest in a perpetual condition of hostility with any of our neighbours, including Pakistan.

We want to be free to get on with the process of development, of pulling our people out of poverty, on helping our people to fulfill their legitimate aspirations in this world, and to do that, we would like a stable and prosperous border, and we would like our neighbors to be stable and prosperous. We have no desire to harm or destabilise any of our neighbors. So, we are very much interested, therefore, to talk peace but we would only talk peace with people who are in a position to deliver what they talk about.

But insofar as Turki's suggestion to Obama is concerned, is there a failing at some level of India's foreign policy with Saudi Arabia, that this very influential gentleman, obviously reflecting Saudi Arabia's policy, has asked Obama to push India and Pakistan for a resolution of the Kashmir crisis?

The Saudi government is a friendly government, but they have had certain positions on certain issues, which are in variance with our own. We know for example, that the OIC --the Organisation of Islamic Conference -- which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, has passed a number of resolutions and statements on Kashmir, which we don't find acceptable. But that doesn't mean that it's a failure of Indian foreign policy because we can only be accountable for our own actions. We cannot be blamed for the actions or statements of others.

We will certainly lose no time in the educating of our friends on our point of view, but we would be presumptuous to assume that every time we convey a point of view to somebody else, that it must be always accepted in the other country. We respect their right to have their point of view, (but) it doesn't mean we have to accept it.

We heard (Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi's statement in the UN (where he also lamented the Kashmir imbroglio and seemed to blame India). Is anyone saying that is also a failure of Indian foreign policy? The fact is, people have their views and they say certain things. We don't have to accept those things, but nor does it mean that our friendship is fundamentally affected.

Your charge also includes India's relations with Africa, and in that regard, how does India counter China's march on that continent?

First of all, that's not the framework within which we are functioning. We believe the continent is large enough and its needs are great enough, that there is room for China, for us, for the West, for anybody else who wants to go in and make a contribution to Africa.

We don't need to see ourselves in competition with anybody and we don't see ourselves in competition that way. We are doing different things and we are doing things in a different way. As far as India is concerned, Africa is an old relationship, our loyalty to Africa goes back before the era of decolonisation, starting with our opposition to colonisation, our opposition to apartheid at the UN. We have been showing our solidarity with Africa time and time again since the 1940s.

We don't think we need to prove anything to Africa and African countries don't feel we need to prove them anything. Secondly, what we are doing today in Africa is a combination of things. It includes both increasing our trade relationship, but also contributing significantly in the investment side of things.

Finally, are you going to continue to tweet with the same enthusiasm, in spite of all of the controversies?

Oh yes, because this is simply a broadcast platform and one that actually gets the message out to large numbers of people. In one go, right now, any message I send out reaches 320,000 followers, and so, it's far better than sending a press release to a media organisation.

Image: Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor sings Sare Jahaa se Achcha with singer Anup Jalota during a Diwali Reception at the Indian Consulate in New York | Photograph: Jay Mandal/On Assignment

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Aziz Haniffa