When Akbaruddin asked Swaraj to avoid Boris's call!

When Akbaruddin pleaded with Swaraj not to pick Boris Johnson's phone!

The former Indian diplomat makes this revelation in his book 'India vs UK: The Story of an Unprecedented Diplomatic Win'

Syed Akbaruddin. Credit: PTI File Photo

Ahead of the successful election of judge Dalveer Bhandari to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2017, the then UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson tried to contact then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj but UN envoy Syed Akbaruddin pleaded with her not to talk to the British leader.

The former Indian diplomat makes this revelation in his book "India vs UK: The Story of an Unprecedented Diplomatic Win".

The ICJ victory, upending all past precedents, is a good case study to understand the changing contours of India's recent approach to global fora, says Akbaruddin, who served as India's Permanent Representative to the UN from 2016 till his retirement from the Indian Foreign Service in 2020.

Unwilling at first, India was prompted to enter the ring in the wake of the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, which proved the importance of having an Indian judge at the court. The contest that followed was like a 'David-and-Goliath fight' against the permanent members of the Security Council, who all put their might behind the UK for its candidate.

But in the contest, the UN Security Council and the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of India. Judge Bhandari received all 15 votes in the UNSC and 183 out of the 193 votes in the UN General Assembly.

The UK had decided to withdraw its candidate after a closely fought electoral process.

Akbaruddin, also a former spokesperson of the external affairs ministry, says major elections at the UN bring together all elements of a state's acumen in multilateral diplomacy as well as a state's ability to leverage the intensity of bilateral ties to its advantage on the global platform.

They are also a useful way of understanding the ground realities that diplomats are required to navigate in fulfilling foreign policy objectives, he says.

There were hectic parleys with global leaders and officials before the contest. After one of these meetings, Akbaruddin was rummaging through text messages when he saw one from then foreign secretary S Jaishankar that said Boris Johnson of the UK is trying to contact the external affairs minister in New Delhi.

"I did not even see the rest of his messages; I take leave of the host and hurriedly call Dr Jaishankar. Before hearing me out, he assures me, 'Relax, we know your views.' Nevertheless, I urge, 'Please don't put him through.' In the midst of the battle, all I am thinking is that there may be some offer that the UK may make that would be difficult for the minister to decline," Akbaruddin writes.

"So single-minded am I in denying an exit route to the UK that it never occurs to me that the UK may be seeking to contact the minister for anything else," he adds.

According to the author, his "thoughts drift back to the warm initial meeting" between Johnson and Swaraj at a reception hosted during the General Assembly session in New York in September, 2017.

"Foreign Secretary Johnson had reacted with enthusiasm as I introduced Minister Swaraj to him. Shaking his head several times, he had muttered, 'Sushma, oh Sushma', and then excitedly grabbed her hand, pivoting towards the next room to tell Prime Minister Theresa May with great relish that 'Sushma has come'," the book, published by HarperCollins India, says.

The reception had clashed with the annual US reception by President Donald Trump, and Swaraj had indeed made the extra effort to attend the UK reception, it says.

"These thoughts make my concerns mount about what may happen now if they talk. To assuage my anxiety, I decide to call the minister's residence. It is already late but, having worked with her for long in Delhi and in my present assignment, I know she will understand. 'Ma'am, please don't pick up the phone,' I plead," Akbaruddin writes.

He then mentions that Swaraj laughed disarmingly and replied, "I have listened to you all the time."

Interestingly, some minutes later, Akbaruddin got a call from Jaishankar who exclaimed, "We've done it. I just got a message that the UK is withdrawing its candidate."

Shortly thereafter, British Ambassador to UN Matthew Rycroft confirmed that Judge Christopher Greenwood has withdrawn his candidature resulting in the victory of Judge Bhandari, the only candidate left in the contest.

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