Sunday, 27 March 2011

Is the US ambassador the only confidant of Indian politicians and bureaucrats?

The Call Of The American Demarche
Does India really follow the US lead as blindly as the Wikileaks cables seem to suggest?
Pranay Sharma

A Few Views Through The Cablegate

Cable 162458 July 17, 2008: Claims Congress MP Satish Sharma's aide, Nachiketa Kapur, confided to an embassy official that RLD MPs had been bribed Rs 10 crore each and showed him two chests containing Rs 50-80 crore for bribing Opposition MPs before a no-confidence vote against UPA-I.

Cable 195165 March 4, 2009: Home Minister P. Chidambaram confides to FBI chief that the constitutional status of the National Investigation Agency is debatable.

Cable 220281 Aug 11, 2009: US ambassador Timothy Roemer is told by NSA M.K. Narayanan that he differs with PM Singh on his policy to engage Pakistan.

Cable 206814 May 13, 2009: BJP leader L.K. Advani says his party, if it were to come to power, would rethink its decision of opposing the nuclear deal.

Cable 243925 Jan 15, 2010: M.K. Narayanan tells US ambassador Roemer that Chidambaram needs someone “to check him and put a bit in his mouth”. Congress leader Digvijay Singh says Narayanan had to leave because of his turf war with the home minister.

Cable No 215357 July 7, 2009: Quotes India's PR to the UN Hardeep Puri saying his “clear” brief from New Delhi is to seek “a greater degree of convergence with the US” in the UN.

Cable No 205168 May 1, 2009: Cites joint secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar saying that the US should convey to the MEA any complaint about Puri's functioning in the UN.

Cable No 149884 April 15, 2008: An MEA official informs the US about the Iranian president's visit to India even before the information is made public or conveyed to other government agencies.

Cable No. 64794 May 19, 2006: Indian deputy PR Ajai Malhotra criticises his boss, Nirupam Sen, for opposing the US in UN, says his brief is to oppose him.

Cable 225053 Sept 14, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to know about finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's ideological orientation, and why Montek Singh Ahluwalia wasn't given that post.

Cable 40501 Sept 13, 2005: Ambassador David Mulford asks Condoleezza Rice to tell Manmohan Singh that India's decision to not vote on Iran in the IAEA could have an adverse impact on the nuclear deal.

Cable 51088 Jan 30, 2006: Mulford hails the sacking of Mani Shankar Aiyar from the petroleum ministry, and says the cabinet reshuffle has an "undeniable pro-America tilt".


As Parliament stalled repeatedly over the sensational Wikileaks cables and the nation was left aghast at the seemingly unfettered access American officials have to the corridors of power in New Delhi, you’d have thought the Indian officialdom had been warned about the perils of rubbing shoulders with all those whose calling cards mention the Embassy of the United States of America. Yet, indifferent to the shock and awe The Hindu-Wikileaks cables generated, a government luminary had the chutzpah to accommodate in his breathless schedule a meeting with a middle-rung American official, to brief him, of all things, on the functioning of his department. It was a gross violation of protocol—the Indian official’s rank meant he met none other than the American ambassador.

Last week also saw a leader of a coalition partner of the UPA government desperately seek from the US embassy a special slot for a visa interview for his son, in the hope of helping him circumvent long queues. Imagine the scenario before the little Wikileaks bombs exploded so dramatically? Secretary-level officials of different ministries readily furnish their mobile numbers to US embassy officials and provide appointments to them without going through the Union ministry of external affairs (MEA). In fact, all those who matter in New Delhi—from politicians to industrialists to opinion-makers—vie with each other to have a one-to-one meeting with the Americans, sharing information and gossip, and unwittingly articulating, often highlighting, the American point of view on sensitive issues.

There are simply too many Indian tongues whispering into the American ear, spilling, as the Wikileaks cables (see infographic) bear out, sensitive aspects of Indian foreign policy, relations between top politicians, their ideological inclinations, even their machinations, and their propensity to strike strong anti-America poses only for public consumption. So then, are we America’s chamcha, a lackey willing to do its bidding? Is America’s penetration of the Indian system worrying?

Take the cable that quotes an American official saying he had been shown two chests of cash by Congress MP Satish Sharma’s aide, Nachiketa Kapur, who claimed the money would soon be utilised for bribing Opposition MPs to vote against the no-confidence motion against UPA-I. A school of thought argues that the money was perhaps America’s, supplied by an intelligence operative, and Kapur was only accounting for the cash to the official who had come calling on him. “What was the need for Kapur to otherwise show the cash to the official? It proves America has become a player in our system,” says one diplomatic source.

A tad exaggerated perhaps. Yet, Kapur’s candour illustrates vividly the confidence an aide of an important MP reposes in the Americans. Says former foreign minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, “Since the US hasn’t spoken about the authenticity of the cables, these are therefore deemed genuine. It’s an invasion by the Americans into the Indian system.” Endorsing Sinha is former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, who was miffed to discover that his parleys with Myanmarese leaders during his 2005 trip to Yangon had been relayed to the US, quite obvious from a Wikileaks cable. “How many moles do we have? The American penetration of the Indian establishment is alarming indeed,” he said, adding that the controversy shows the Manmohan government in “poor light”.

Waltzing to whose tune? A US embassy party in New Delhi. (Photograph by Sanjoy Ghosh)

A clutch of cables pertaining to the United Nations bolsters the theory about America penetrating the Indian system. One cable quotes India’s Permanent Representative in the UN, Hardeep Puri, as saying that his specific brief is to seek a “greater degree of convergence” with the US, in contrast to his predecessor, Nirupam Sen’s. Another cable has an Indian official criticise Sen’s ‘anti-US’ approach. But the former diplomat asks of his detractors: “Since I was perceived by at least some American diplomats in an adversarial light, how was I able to continue there for another two years after retiring on March 31, 2007?” Sen wasn’t willing to provide the answer, but MEA sources say he was given an extension at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, who wanted to correct UPA's pro-Washington tilt.

Yet, the pro-America lobby in the UPA-I regime felt emboldened enough to scuttle a fundamental change in the UN that Sen had initiated, only to please the Americans. This pertained to the choice of a candidate for the post of UN secretary-general. Under a 1946 resolution, described as 11/1, the US and other P-5 members of the Security Council (SC), along with the support of four non-permanent members, send only one name for the approval of General Assembly (GA). This practice had once led Sen to remark that the UN secretary-general acted more like a “secretary to the P-5” and a “general to the General Assembly”.

Sen and some members of the GA, therefore, proposed that it be made mandatory for the SC to shortlist at least three names for the post of secretary-general. South Block, sources say, initially tried to dissuade Sen from pursuing this course, but he remained steadfast saying he needed a written order before he could retract from his position. It was then that South Block turned wily, writing a new script that, sources insist, was truly Machiavellian—and aimed at pleasing the Americans.

What was that script? In 2006, Shashi Tharoor threw his hat in the ring, not as an official Indian candidate, but as an ‘independent’ who, straw polls indicated, enjoyed tremendous popularity in the UN and was supposed to give the SC (read the US) nominee a run for the money. Sources say a nervous US asked New Delhi to endorse Tharoor as its official candidate. The announcement sowed seeds of doubt among the GA members who perceived Sen’s attempt to alter 11/1 as a ruse to win for India the post of secretary-general. The GA became badly divided, provoking many of its members to abandon the plan of rewriting 11/1—and diluting the powers of P-5.

Yet another example of the craven behaviour of Indian officials towards America is borne out by the experience of Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, whose divestment of the petroleum ministry portfolio is celebrated in a Wikileaks cable. The Americans thought Aiyar was anti-America, a charge he dismisses outright. “I was disappointed (at the divestment),” says Aiyar, “but I don’t believe it was because of pressure from outside.”

But what rankled Aiyar was that then US ambassador David Mulford declared in a public speech that Murli Deora was better informed about the petroleum ministry than Aiyar. As he told Outlook, “While Mulford was perfectly within his rights to send secret cables to his government about us, to make a public statement comparing two ministers was an act of gross impropriety. I objected very strongly to it, and conveyed my protest to the foreign secretary. But instead of a public expression of deep displeasure, the foreign secretary preferred merely to whisper in the US ambassador’s ear. I thought it was inadequate.”

The love for America is a trait the BJP too shares with the Congress. One cable has the US embassy complaining to Washington that the NDA government gave them better access than the UPA. Again, BJP leader L.K. Advani was initially opposed to the idea of sending Indian troops to Iraq, but a 2003 trip to the US and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to his hotel room saw him accede to Washington. Ultimately, Indian troops weren’t sent because of prime minister A.B. Vajpayee’s opposition. Says Sinha, “There is no denying that there were elements even in the NDA who were very close to the US, but you should judge us by our actions.” He says it is well-documented that the BJP-led NDA warded off American pressure to sign the CTBT and the nuclear deal, believing these militated against India’s interest. (Analysts, however, say the NDA would have agreed to the nuclear deal had it been voted to power in 2004.)

The aggrieved Both Aiyar and Natwar Singh have bones to pick

What has enabled the Americans to make deep inroads into the Indian system? To begin with, the Indian middle class, to which the elite belong, has made an ideological shift to the US. Every middle-class family seems to have a member working in the US. It is the land where parents wish to send their children for education, and seasoned bureaucrats are keen on short-term courses in the American universities. Visas have granted the US embassy an unprecedented clout and reach. In addition, bureaucrats have seen three successive governments, beginning 1999, tilt away from Russia and inch closer to Washington. This shift has transmitted a message to the officialdom that America is the flavour of the season, engendering hopes in them of advancing their careers by taking a pro-US line in consonance with that of their political masters.

There’s no denying that America’s support to India has given it a considerable heft in the international arena. Says an Indian diplomat, “We have used the US as a stepladder.” Has the climb up the hierarchy of global powers compromised India’s sovereignty? And though a country’s interests keep shifting, and there’s always give-and-take in diplomacy, New Delhi can’t be seen to have bartered on possible gains of the future for America’s support, other than on Iran.

Iran remains a contentious issue among foreign policy wonks. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran insists it was in India’s interest to have voted along with the US in the IAEA in 2005 (see interview). Again, Aiyar pursued the India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) gas pipeline on the basis of a cabinet decision. Substantial progress was registered on the issue in the first two years of Aiyar’s departure from the petroleum ministry. But the pipeline subsequently got stalled because of the instability in Pakistan.

Perhaps the Wikileaks cables are a timely warning to India to draw certain lines in its relationship with the US. As Aiyar says, “My only suggestion to our ministries is to exercise greater discretion in their exchange with foreign diplomats. Do not retail gossip, be more disciplined.” Perhaps the furore over Wikileaks cables is a reminder to Indians to not be unduly enamoured of America, to not sacrifice their self-respect, to introduce a certain balance in its conduct of foreign policy.

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