15 November 2005

As Shashi Tharoor ducked for cover for over a year while his mentor and benefactor Kofi Annan was being pounded by the artillery of the press, we were urged to reproduce the article written for an internal publication by Shashi Tharoor when he was seeking to leapfrog from his D-1 niche to Under-Secretary General and head of the Department of Public Information. It was considered a classic example of blatant unabashed offering of verbal incense, a lethal weapon. "It was you, I said, that made the U.N. worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize;" "The future of the U.N. never looked as promising as it does now;" "Annan is the world's most admired statesman, more than double the popularity of his nearest rival, British Prime Minister Tony Blair;" were just sample attestations. As they will be joined together at an Internet related "summit" in Tunis, we were urged to push the "Refresh" button with that item.

The flattering article remained on the tables in the waiting area of the delegates' dining room, although it was dated a year earlier. It was written by Shashi Tharoor, then interim head of the Department of Public Information, then confirmed as Under-Secretary General. It was about "the man who got the Nobel Prize."

In it Tharoor described how he "tossed and turned" at night anticipating the news from Nobel but that Kofi Annan was sleeping soundly "as typically, he had no such anxieties." The prize, of course, was a wonderful way to wake up. Responding to a comment by a senior colleague that the U.N. and Mr. Annan could not have won this prize without one another, Shashi boldly stated he told the Secretary General firmly and squarely to his face: "It was you," I said, "who brought the U.N. to the point where we are worthy of the Nobel Peace prize." The man who brought the U.N. to this point we are told, ranked as the world's most admired statesman in a Scandinavian summer poll (would a winter poll be far behind?), "more than double the popularity of his nearest rival, British Prime Minister Tony Blair." We are also informed that this emerging success after everyone else's failure was not due to the fact that Mr. Annan was an insider with a remarkable range of skills. "The screaming, weeping and cheering throng" that greeted him or "the continued exhilaration at the U.N." at his re-election, was explained by something altogether simpler. "Kofi Annan possesses that rare quality not always found in successful men: he is a wonderful human being." He was also a record-breaking sprinter in his youth - "his college record in the 60-yard dash stood for decades." That may explain why Mr. Annan has "revealed in his first term the tireless, stamina and patience of a long-distance runner" (sixty yards is actually a short-distance run but then no one is keeping track). That is also why "the future of the world organization had not for many years looked as promising as it does now." (!)

Diplomats and senior staff attending functions on the fourth floor regaled each other with choice passages of that unique sample of unabashed flattery. They were not sure whether it was tongue in cheek, an outright application for confirmation in the interim job, or merely one way of sending your powerful boss a belated Valentine Day message. In defense, others said the hyperactive Shashi got one point right within that wave of intensive incense burning. Kofi Annan was indeed a man of humanity and deep personal strength. But he is also human. And as Napoleon once said, the most blinding weapon is verbal incense. Obviously, it works.