The Wikileaks cables on India pertain to the period during which Shyam Saran was the country’s foreign secretary (2004-2006) and then later the special envoy of the prime minister between October 2006 and March 2010. Pranay Sharma finds Saran nonplussed by the sound and fury that the cables have generated. Excerpts from an interview:
How important are cables in diplomacy, and what’s the significance of the United States cables on India as revealed by Wikileaks through The Hindu?
Cables are only one of several means of communication between diplomatic missions and headquarters. In today’s world, there are conversations on open or secure telephone lines, through encrypted e-mails and ‘open’ faxes. Confidential cables form only a limited component of diplomatic communications. Cables, by their very nature, are summaries of what may have been long conversations and reflect what the sender deems important. The norm in our ministry of external affairs is to limit cables to not more than one-and-a-half pages. Subjective interpretations are inevitable. Therefore, great caution must be exercised in assessing the Wikileaks material that is incomplete, selective and often misleading.
‘Hillary Clinton’s cable for a profile on Pranab Mukherjee is no blow to India’s sovereignty but usual diplomatic work.’
The US embassy cables which have now emerged from Wikileaks cover a range of subjects but none are particularly sensitive since these belong to the restricted and confidential category—and not the higher categories of secrecy. They are mostly reports on demarches made by US diplomats. On occasion, the demarche would be in the nature of briefing Indian officials on US policies on various issues. There may be requests for Indian support on draft resolutions in multilateral fora or for briefing on high-level visits by foreign leaders to India. Such demarches are the normal stuff of diplomacy and should not be misperceived as exercising “pressure” or interfering. Our diplomats engage in similar activity in other countries. We try to persuade others of the legitimacy of our stand on certain issues and often seek support for our positions. This is persuasion, not pressure, and we should not confuse the two.
I have seen criticism based on a cable where US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has asked the US embassy for an assessment and personality profile of Pranab Mukherjee. Nothing unusual or sinister in this. Our own diplomats are routinely expected to provide such assessments of incoming political leaders or senior officials in the country where they may be serving. Such assessments may include personality traits, thinking on important issues and attitude towards India. This is normal diplomatic work. Hillary Clinton’s request is hardly a blow to India’s sovereignty. Such assessment matters to the US because India matters.
As foreign secretary, did you ever feel US pressure to change India’s stand or policy on an issue?
No, I did not. The US did make forceful demarches to convince us of their positions. We would respond by firmly setting forth our own considered positions. But diplomacy involves give-and-take and the search for common ground, without sacrificing one’s country’s interests. It is naive to believe that we can extract advantage for India but ignore the interests of our partners. Diplomacy is the art of exploring possible convergences and managing differences. This is what we sought to do, and have done so with notable success, in developing a strategic partnership with the US.
Would it be correct to see India’s decision to vote against Iran in the IAEA as a result of American pressure?
‘India was interested in the Iran vote to pin down Pak’s role. We never bought the US theory of AQ Khan’s private N-market.’
While the US and European countries were keen on India’s support for the resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme at the IAEA, the eventual decision was our own, based on a careful assessment of the pros and cons. Our main interest in the resolution was to ensure that there was a full accounting of Pakistan and the DPRK’s (Democratic Republic of Korea) role in Iran’s clandestine acquisition of nuclear materials and equipment. In fact, we were critical of the focus being put on Iran as a recipient but not on Pakistan as the source of proliferation. We never believed in the “A.Q. Khan private nuclear supermarket” theory that the US advanced to let Pakistan off the hook.
It should be recalled that Iran had voted against India a number of times in the IAEA, calling upon India to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. We never let such behaviour by Iran affect our close and friendly relations with it, because we understood its compulsions. Iran ought to have reacted with greater understanding, especially after we explained our position in considerable detail to its representatives. Those who believe that India voted against Iran at US’s behest are not aware that India voted against an American-sponsored resolution on Cuba around the same time, despite a strong demarche from the US secretary of state herself.
What do you have to say about the debate that India is sacrificing its interests because it wants to build a strategic relationship with the US?
We wish to build a strong and enduring strategic partnership with the US because this conforms to our interests. We share common political values and confront a number of common challenges. There are more points of convergence than of difference in our approach to key regional and international issues. As with any partnership, there must be mutual respect and mutual advantage. We work together with the US where our interests converge and reserve our positions where they don’t.
Did India have to pay a price in any way to forge close relations with the US?
Not only the US, but other major powers too acknowledge India’s growing stature and enhanced role. In 2010, the leaders of the five permanent members of the Security Council visited India. Our views on issues of the day count and for that reason our support is eagerly solicited. We are an indispensable member of all emerging institutions of regional and global governance, whether it is the East Asia Summit or the G-20. We won a non-permanent seat in the Security Council with an unprecedented number of votes. I cannot see what price we have had to pay in terms of sacrificing any significant Indian interest by forging a close and friendly relationship with the US as part of a broader engagement with the world.
Do you think a section of Indians continue to suffer from a “colonial mindset” because of their perceived fear that the US is influencing all major decisions in the country?
It is a sign of low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence in ourselves as a people and as a country. A pity, since for the first time since Independence, we are on the side of the table where rules are being written, not on the side where we have to live by the rules made by others. The world recognises our strengths. We seem to cherish our weaknesses.
Is it proper for a diplomat on a UN posting to declare that his brief is to seek a greater convergence with the US in the United Nations?
India has strategic partnerships with several countries, including the five permanent members of the Security Council. As part of such partnership, we agree to mutually consult with each other on issues that are on the agenda of multilateral fora, expand the area of convergence wherever possible and seek to coordinate our actions where our interests may be convergent. We do this routinely, for example, with China on climate change and WTO issues. We would do the same with the US and UK, say, on international terrorism. This is of as much benefit to India as it is to our partners. Therefore, there is nothing unusual or objectionable in our conveying to counterparts in partner countries that it will be our endeavour to work together with them in multilateral fora. The mandate to do so derives publicly from the partnership itself and not from any confidential instruction from the government.