India put forward M.S. Swaminathan, Amrita Patel, but too late.

India missed a unique opportunity to place one of its leading lights in the field at the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as their candidacy was offered too late for the 2005 election, a leaked cable dated July 28, 2004 (19191: confidential) from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations has revealed.

The names of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the driving force behind India's Green Revolution, and Dr. Amrita Patel, veterinarian and Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board, were proposed for the post of FAO Director-General by India's Permanent Representative Himachal Som at a private meeting with U.S. Ambassador to the Agencies for Food and Agriculture Tony P. Hall, on July 26, 2004.

In Mr. Hall's view, the proposals were “welcome,” but they came too late and were too disorganised. “Som had not done his homework to assess the current state of play, and was probably at too early a stage in his thinking to be able to table a serious initiative,” he wrote.

“This was a discussion we should have had four months ago.”

The proposed candidacies came at a key moment when they might have gathered broad support, because it was the first serious proposal for the choice of an alternative Director-General. Dr. Jacques Diouf of Senegal, who was elected the FAO's first Director-General on November 8, 1993, had run the FAO for 12 years by the time of the 2005 election.

Leadership style

His “autocratic” leadership style had drawn ire from countries such as Britain, which in November 1999 threatened to withdraw funding for the agency if limits to the term of office were not introduced. After years of debate, in 2003 FAO members restricted a Director-General's tenure to two terms totalling 10 years.

But a loophole in putting this into effect in 2006 enabled Mr. Diouf to run again in 2005. This was clearly a cause for concern for India, as Mr. Hall reported: “Som said the GOI supports term limits for UN agency heads, and is concerned that another term for Diouf would result in benign neglect (or worse) of FAO by major donors.”

The cable reveals both the extent to which “the great game” is still played from diplomatic offices around the world, and how far from practised India could be.

Mr. Diouf had already lined up “considerate, possibly sufficient” G77 support.

In comparison, “Som's seeming unawareness of Diouf's recent successes in lining up Caribbean and Islamic countries' endorsements, his lack of information about vacillation on term limits within the EU, and his failure thus far to even approach tentative Indian candidates,” Mr. Hall wrote, made India's “trial balloon … fairly limp.”

Two terms later, Mr. Diouf is still FAO Director-General. His tenure will be over in 2012.