October 24, 2012

Dateline UN | October 24, 2012

Flavour of Puja-time Bengal

Day Eight: “Nomoshkar. Aaj Durga Puja, Banglar priyo utsav. Ei shubho dine aapnader shokolke janai abhinandan ar subhechha… (Nomoshkar. Today is Durga Puja, Bengal’s most cherished festival. On this auspicious day, I’d like to wish all of you the very best...”) As I finished the opening sentence, I could see delegates reach out for their earphones and the instant translation service. They relaxed as I switched to English. I relaxed too. The initial nervousness was gone. My address to the General Assembly had begun.

I woke up early in the morning and had my cup of coffee watching the sun rise over New York. My thoughts were mixed and contemplative. I’ve had my ambitions in life but not in my wildest dreams had I considered addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations. The walk to the UN Headquarters was brisk (it’s October and the weather is changing in the United States) but the news there didn’t do much for my nerves. My speech had been postponed from early in the morning to 3pm, after lunch, not the best time to address any audience.

The opening line — I’m not certain but I believe I’m the first Indian delegate to speak in Bengali at the UN — had come to me over the weekend, as I was wrestling with ideas of how I could give the speech a taste and smell of home. Once the speech began — I was slotted after the American delegate — the nervousness vanished. I had actually been more tentative when making my first speech in the Rajya Sabha. In Parliament you address the Chairman or the Speaker, right from where you’re seated. At the General Assembly you make a more conventional address, facing the entire audience of delegates. Maybe this made a difference.

My speech itself was on a spate of recent UN summits related to economic and social challenges and including the Rio + 20 Summit. I also addressed gaps that remained in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. I was required to touch upon issues as far apart (or as related) as gender equity and infant mortality, climate change and poverty. I had to urge, as India always has, a coordinated global approach.

“Our commitment to tackling infant and maternal mortality and augmenting women’s empowerment,” I said, “remains absolute and unflinching. It is part of our nation-building tradition.” I chose to quote Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar — “One of the foremost minds of 19th century Bengal, a pioneer of modern India and among our country’s great champions of gender rights, female emancipation and girls’ education”. It was deliberate. I’ve often felt Vidyasagar is one reformer from the Bengal Renaissance who doesn’t get his due.

Towards the end I invoked the internationalism of another of Bengal’s greats. “Space scientists,” I said, “call our Earth the Goldilocks planet — not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. Indeed, in keeping with that imagery, humankind’s evolution and prodigious attainments in the millennia that have passed have been nothing short of a fairy tale…. Our challenges are many. But given what we have achieved… what we are left with is, frankly, only the last mile.With our collaborative effort and collective will… we can fashion a better world for ourselves — and as a legacy for our children.”

Here I turned to my favourite lines from Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy/I awoke and saw that life was service/I acted and behold, service was joy.” “Let us,” I said, “as a global community, awaken to service. And to joy.”

I had been given 10 minutes but had taken 12. The first to congratulate me was the Bangladeshi delegate, a polished man who has memories of Calcutta, where he served as deputy high commissioner. He had also seen my quizzes on TV, as had, I was humbled to learn, the Indonesian delegate.

The entire team from the Indian Permanent Mission had turned up for moral support. They had helped me shape my speech. As one of the diplomats told a delegate from another country, the visits by MPs were a useful Indian innovation at the General Assembly. They imparted not usual diplomatic messages but “a flavour of India”. In my case, it was a flavour of India and of Puja-time Bengal.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Thursday, November 01, 2012]

October 23, 2012

Dateline UN | October 23, 2012

Quiet weekend before big day

Day Seven: Weekends at the United Nations seem to follow a pattern, especially for diplomats and delegates visiting for a short period. They are spent taking the train to Washington, DC, for consultation with fellow diplomats there or for one or the other social cum professional engagement. More often than not the visit to the General Assembly is combined with a round of meetings at the State Department, with the individual country’s (in my case India’s) embassy in the American capital, and confabulations with the several think-tanks in the Beltway, as Washington’s inner ring is called.

I skipped the trip to DC because there was nothing pressing for me to do there. I’d already gone there earlier and done my share of meetings. Instead, I spent my Saturday at the UN attending that other New York institution: the charity ball.

Organised by Children’s Hope India, an NGO run by Indian-origin women and raising money for underprivileged children in India for several years now, the charity ball I went to has long-established its credentials. It is an annual feature on the city calendar, usually coinciding with the General Assembly session. Each year, Children’s Hope India raises half a million dollars or thereabouts to assist 250,000 children in India. It has been doing this for the past 20 years, and providing financial support to institutions from Ballygunge to Borivili.

One of the features of the charity ball —hosted at the Chelsea Piers Complex —was an auction to raise money. The highlight item was a cricket bat autographed by the Indian team that went for US$ 15,000. There was also a painting by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, which depicted purple flowers and was labelled, appropriately, “Flower Power”. It was picked up by a New York art dealer for US$ 3,000. I tried to talk to him and thank him after the auction, but he left as soon as it was over — and my ungainly sprint was to no avail.

Sunday was spent rather quietly — a short walk around the neighbourhood and then an afternoon of study in my hotel room, going over my speech for the following morning. The thought of addressing the General Assembly on Monday morning, on issues related to the Millennium Development Goals, had me both excited and nervous. I must have rehearsed my speech at least three times, and edited it maybe a dozen times, and even called my office in India for an appropriate quote. This is the Big One!

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 30, 2012]

October 22, 2012

Dateline UN | October 22, 2012

One week done at the UN... one more to go.

Day Six: This morning I walked into the Kuwaiti Permanent Mission to the United Nations by mistake. It had the same ornate door as the Indian Mission and was in the same neighbourhood. For a stranger, it was easy to get confused. I wonder who copied whom! It’s a brisk, seven-minute walk from the Indian Mission to the UN Headquarters. About half the 193 permanent missions are situated within walking distance of the UN building. Diplomats from the 100 other countries have to drive down and negotiate the impossible New York traffic. In fact, UN diplomats have a reputation for parking illegally in the city and not paying fines, citing diplomatic immunity.

The annual trip to New York for the General Assembly session is normally popular among Indian MPs, no doubt for a variety of reasons. This year, however, domestic compulsions and the hot-house politics of New Delhi seem to have trumped the appeal of the UN. Congress MPs are missing entirely. The buzz is not one of them is willing to leave the capital, in case they get that call from Rashtrapati Bhawan on the eve of the expected ministerial reshuffle. Thankfully, I have no such fears, worries or expectations. Being in an opposition party can be blissful.

Being in opposition doesn’t preclude you from representing India, of course. Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur read out a statement on behalf of India at the Security Council. I was sitting right behind her, with Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, next to me. We’re not alliance partners in New Delhi anymore – the Trinamool Congress and the Congress are not – but when you’re at the UN you’re part of Team India. Nothing else matters.

My exploration of food options at the UN continued. R. Ravindra, counsellor at the Permanent Mission and my liaison officer, suggested I try a cafĂ© called Vienna, located within the UN complex. It was an inspired recommendation. I had a splendid lunch comprising clam soup, cod fish, rice and mashed potatoes. This was rounded off with cupcakes, making for a quintessentially American meal. It was light and filling, perfect for a working-day lunch.

Then it was back to work. I read a statement on universal jurisdiction before the Sixth Committee – the Legal Committee. My statement dealt with “procedural technicalities” in relation to international crimes where there may be confusion or conflict between the party offended by the crime and the national jurisdiction of the offending party (criminal). This is common in cases of piracy, for instance.

Shortly after I’d made the statement, I was told there was a chance I may get to address the General Assembly for 10 minutes in the coming few days. There’s no certainty yet, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If I do address the General Assembly, though, it would be worth the sacrifice of a Puja away from home.

Wherever She is, the Goddess is blessing me.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 22, 2012]

October 19, 2012

Dateline UN | October 19, 2012

Yearning for Puja in a heady ‘UNiverse’

Day Five: When asking a question in a quiz, I like to be on top of the subject. I make it a point to get a bit of background and digest peripheral information. The reason is simple enough — in case of an argument or an interjection, I can defend the answer I am providing. There is no point being an actor who reads out somebody else’s words. If you’re found out, you could be severely embarrassed. In politics and public life too I try and write my own speeches, with research material I may have found or which has been made available to me for study.

Speaking before the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly — this is the Legal Committee, which deals with international legal issues — I ran into a very uncomfortable moment. I was due to make a statement on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law or UNCITRAL as it was called. Despite the best efforts of the diplomats at the Permanent Mission, I’m afraid I didn’t fully comprehend the text before me, with its arcane legal parlance; its reference to “arbitration institutions and other interested bodies with regard to arbitration under the UNCITRAL arbitration rules, as revised in 2010”; its stress on the “continued work of the Commission to ensure monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, 1958 (the New York Convention)”.

My discomfort must have shown. As I readied to speak, the delegate from Malaysia caught my eye and said, “Oh India ... Sub kuchtheekhaina? (All okay?)” I stuttered: “You know Hindi?” “Haan, haan (Yes, yes),” he responded, “Shahrukh Khan … KuchKuchHotaHai…” With that opening, I began my statement on UNCITRAL.

The two-hour lunch break at the United Nations Headquarters is an indulgence. Four of us — Ambassador Sujata Mehta, India’s permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s deputy permanent representative at the UN, BJP MP Ananth Kumar and me — went to a restaurant called Tulsi, located roughly halfway between the UN and the Indian Mission. It was a Michelin star Indian restaurant that richly deserved its accolade. I had a variety of kebabs, among the best I’ve ever eaten. Why the management at Tulsi had to spoil their excellent and varied menu with Gobi Manchurian was, of course, beyond me!

The conversation was engaging. Mehta and Puri are two of the best officers in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Being at the UN, they swim deep in the oceans of multilateralism. They spoke about the domestic sources of foreign policy, and the gradual evolution from local concerns to representing India overseas to contributing to building global governance. Indeed, as one of them joked, perhaps it was time to “rename the ministry of external affairs the ministry of global governance”.

It was all in good humour, but also served as a wake-up call for me. While no doubt important, global governance and multilateralism form only a small part of the MEA’s portfolio. From dealing with neighbours to promoting bilateral relations with big powers or facilitating trade and visa issues, the meat and bones often lie elsewhere. However, it is easy to lose sight of this in the heady, all-consuming universe of the UN, where the rest of the world almost doesn’t exist.

There was a message here for me as well. The UN experience has been overwhelming but it is only an adjunct to the real politics back home. Midway through my UN sojourn that thought made me nostalgic for the political theatre of Lutyens’ Delhi, and the smells and sounds of the approach of Puja in Calcutta.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Friday, October 19, 2012]

October 18, 2012

Dateline UN | October 18, 2012

Kid in a candy store at ‘high table’ of planet

Day Four: However old we become, there is still inside us that child wanting to reach to that candy behind the store window. As I sat there at the horseshoe-shaped Security Council table, I was transfixed by the voting button in front of me, itching to touch it, feel it, press it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the issue didn’t come down to voting!

Nevertheless I had a real-life, real-time experience of the Security Council. All those political science lessons Father Huart, the forever-smiling Jesuit, had taught us in classes XI and XII at St. Xavier’s came rushing back, as if I were in a reverie. Except of course, this was not a political theory lecture — this was the real thing.

The 15-member Security Council was discussing the “Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The Palestinian case for full membership of the United Nations is supported by 132 of 193 countries. Of the 61 naysayers, Israel is expectedly the most prominent. Seated at the two ends of the horseshoe (in the second-last seats to the left and the right) were the contending parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The 15 members of the Security Council (five permanent, 10 — among them India, elected for two-year terms) and 50 countries from the General Assembly made submissions on the issue being discussed. They spoke from chairs placed at the ends of the horseshoe table, sitting next to either Palestine or Israel. There was no controversy this time, but in the past even seating arrangements at the Security Council have caused problems. An Iranian delegate once refused to make a presentation because he was seated next to the Israeli delegate and wanted his seat changed. It was only when he was threatened with forfeiture of speaking opportunity that he quietened down. Thankfully there was no such drama this time.

The Security Council meets from 10 to 1 and then from 3 to 6. The two-hour lunch break is an indulgence that I used to discover the food options in the UN Headquarters but more on that in another piece. I heard the submissions of various countries with rapt attention. To my mind, the best, most forceful and articulate voice was that of the Bangladeshi representative. I was tempted to go up to him and congratulate him in Bengali.

India becomes president of the Security Council in November. It (and I) sat to the left of the Guatemalan representative, who presides over the Council in October. To my left was the gentlemen from Morocco, separating India and Pakistan as it happened. All in all it was a good day at the high table of the planet. Father Huart would be proud of me.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Thursday, October 18, 2012]

October 17, 2012

Dateline UN | October 17, 2012

Ma Mati Manush reaches UN

Day Three: The Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations is located at 235 East, 43rd Street, New York. It’s not far from the East River, which flows past the UN Headquarters. The Permanent Mission is housed in a building redolent of Indian associations, and designed by the well-known architect Charles Correa. As you enter the reception area, a striking and massive painting, 20 feet high, captures your gaze. Painted by M.F. Hussain in 1993, it depicts the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

The painting, with the tragic episode it depicts, is apposite for the location, as the UN was set up to sequester humankind from the ravages of war, violence and bigotry. One of Husain’s most monumental works, it is also, the assessment goes, probably worth more than the value of the property it is displayed in!

One principle of the UN General Assembly is egalitarianism. This is the Lok Sabha of the world and all of its 193 members — with their flags displayed outside the UN building — have an equal voice and standing. You experience this enforced equality when you walk down to get your identity tag. It’s a short walk from the Indian Mission but it has to be done by everybody when he or she arrives at the UN as a delegate. You could be an ambassador or a minister, an MP or a civil servant, it doesn’t matter. You still queue up, and become part of the most multi-ethnic, multicultural and multinational single file you will ever be privileged to join.

My first statement at the UN was to the second committee of the General Assembly, the Economic and Financial Committee. Each committee meets in a separate chamber, with a capacity of about 200 people. Statements are made sitting down — a novel experience for me — and translated simultaneously into the many languages that the UN uses. I was speaking on issues related to “funding of operational activities of the UN development system along with Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review and the state of South-South Cooperation”.

It was a short statement, about 1,200 words, but I will leave you with the operative opening paragraph: “Poverty eradication still remains the overriding priority for developing countries and the greatest global challenge. It is therefore our considered conviction that poverty eradication should be at the heart of UN’s operational activities for development, as its primary objective. In Bengal, the region of India I come from, we call this humanistic philosophy one of ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ — signifying an equilibrium of the universally caring Mother, the Earth that nurtures us, and the Human Beings who must be central to our developmental endeavours.”

I felt both humbled and satisfied as I finished my statement. I was humbled because I was speaking before the most august audience I had ever addressed. I was satisfied because I had managed to integrate the Trinamool Congress’ core philosophy into the message India wanted to give to the UN, and one which I believe is relevant to large parts of the developing world.

It was a reasonable beginning, but much remains to be done during my stint at the UN. As somebody else put it in a different America at a different time, “Tomorrow is another day.”

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Wednesday, October 17, 2012]

October 16, 2012

Dateline UN | October 16, 2012

Back to books at parliament of nations.

We’re staying at the Millennium Plaza Hotel, a short walk from the United Nations Organisation Headquarters, and known universally it would appear as “the UN Hotel”. Coming to this part of town has been exciting and different. I’ve visited New York several times but have never come to the UN building or its neighbourhood. It’s almost like you’re entering another zone. This is an uber cosmopolitan precinct even within the world’s most cosmopolitan city. It even has its own postage stamps! The UN complex is an imposing one, and one of its architects incidentally was Le Corbusier, the French urban planner who later gave us Chandigarh and Gandhinagar.

The business end of the visit begins on Monday. Depending on how you see it, I’ve been promised or warned I’ll get more speaking duties than expected. Part of the reason for this is the parliamentary delegation is smaller than anticipated. One of my colleagues, S.C. Misra of the BSP, has dropped out. That means the MPs who are here for the General Assembly session — Ananth Kumar of the BJP and me — will get more opportunities to speak than expected. I’m not complaining.

Our speeches are prepared in consultation with the Indian Permanent Mission at the UN. Even so, the Mission and its able diplomats provide only talking points and overarching statements of national positions. MPs have the right and the flexibility to redraft the text, adding political or broader philosophical ideas and thoughts that they may want to put on record before the Legislature of the Planet. Of course, these cannot contravene national positions, as the MPs are representing India and not an individual party. Nevertheless I have some plans to bring a bit of West Bengal into my submission on behalf of India.

Before I arrived in New York, I had been primed to speak before the Third Committee of the General Assembly — the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee. I felt this choice was appropriate, especially given the Trinamool Congress’ mandate and political charter. It now seems I may also have to give statements before the Second Committee (Economic and Financial Committee) and the Sixth Committee (Legal Committee).

The subjects before these committees range from challenges before the international financial system to the ambit of international jurisdictions on individual nation states. It is all very different from a TV debate back home, with its customary quota of one-liners. My weekend has been spent reading background papers and consulting a short manual on UN procedure. It’s been harder work than I imagined, but extremely educative. Watching me pore over documents on a Sunday morning, my wife muttered I resembled a nervous student. Well, the anticipation of speaking at the UN does do things to you!

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 16, 2012]

October 15, 2012

Dateline UN | October 15, 2012

A boy from Calcutta bats for India!

Day One: This past fortnight's been hectic. It began with an emphatic rally at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and moved on to quiz shows in Singapore and Doha. Then, I bought my ticket to New York for the United Nations General Assembly session. I'm one of two parliamentary representatives from India who will be at the UN beginning on Monday. My colleague will be Ananth Kumar of the BJP. We will succeed L.K. Advani (BJP) and Dharmendra Yadav (Samajwadi Party).
As a young boy, I often dreamt of playing for India - at cricket but more at football. Of course, that remained a boyhood fantasy. I simply wasn't good enough. As such, it is more than a little humbling to contemplate I will be batting for India this coming fortnight, in the parliament of nations, the UN - and be reading statements on behalf of our country. I have represented my party and my state at political and legislative forums. It is my privilege that I have been allowed to make the leap to representing our country. These are not empty words. For an ordinary middle-class boy from Calcutta, this is a huge, huge honour.

The practice of an all-party delegation of MPs visiting New York during the first few months of the General Assembly session is believed to have been initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister and a fervent advocate of internationalism. It says something about India that a practice begun by a Congress PM has been furthered in recent days by MPs from the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamul Congress. For all our bickering and argument at home, there must be something our democracy has got right.

Indeed, the Indian tradition of sending MPs to the first few meetings of each session is unique. No other country does it. No other country sees a similar need for capacity building and education of its MPs or making them engage with the UN. As an idea it is a noble one. There is also a utilitarian purpose to it. During their visit, MPs attend deliberations of the General Assembly and its committees and get an insider view of multilateral diplomacy as it is undertaken.

We live in an era of diffused sovereignties, when the ambit of international legal and normative regimes has expanded enormously. This process ' the globalisation of a domestic polity, if I could coin an expression ' is here to stay. That is why an osmotic interaction between an ordinary MP, belonging to a party with its base in Bengal, and an institutional process that tempers national jurisdictions can be just so useful and educative. It brings the local and the global a little closer to each other.

As you may expect, I'm looking forward to my apprenticeship at the UN. I hope to come back wiser and intellectually richer.

Do wish me luck.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, October 15, 2012]