January 23, 2021
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India: As Seen By American Diplomats

India: As Seen By American Diplomats

The Hindu has a massive six million words scoop today in the form of 5,100 cables offering its readers:

"a series of unprecedented insights into India's foreign policy and domestic affairs, diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual – encountered, observed, tracked, interpreted, commented upon, appreciated, and pilloried by U.S. diplomats cabling the State Department in Washington D.C."

The Hindu editor in chief, Mr N. Ram describes and details how it got hold of the cables and how it went about putting them out:

Our contacts with WikiLeaks were initiated in the second week of December 2010. It was a period when Cablegate had captured the attention and imagination of a news-hungry world...

Hopes of getting our hands on the entire India Cache rose in the second half of December when Julian Assange spoke, in a newspaper interview, of “the incredible potential of the Indian media” in a context of “a lot of corruption” (waiting to be exposed), a rising middle class, and growing access to the internet – and specifically mentioned and praised The Hindu.

To cut the story short, our active contacts with WikiLeaks resumed in mid-February 2011. A breakthrough was achieved without any fuss, resulting in a detailed understanding on the terms and modus of publication, including redacting (where, and only where, necessary) and compliance with a security protocol for protecting and handling the sensitive material – and we had the whole cache of the India Cables in our hands in early March....

Already, there has been a furore in Parliament   on what the American diplomats were saying about the cabinet reshuffle of 2006. As the cables begin to be read, absorbed and debated, among other things, there is bound to be at least a better understanding of which of the Indian politicians and journalists the American diplomats considered pro and anti American.

Much has already been said about the cabinet formation in 2009 after the shocking disclosures of the Radia tapes. Now take the cabinet reshuffle of 2006, on which Outlook reported as follows:

But Deora's appointment does not simply send out a pro-reforms, pro-US message that suits the PM at this moment. It also says that this is collection time, given his legendary fund-raising skills and his closeness to two powerful corporate houses, one of which has a clear interest in his ministry. Especially when read with the power portfolio being given to former Andhra Pradesh governor Sushilkumar Shinde, believed to be close to another corporate leader with interests in his ministry.

On Mr Aiyar being deprived of the Oil ministry, Mr Prem Shankar Jha wrote as follows:

Aiyar may have been moved because a side-effect of the long-term energy security plans he was beginning to implement would have been to change the global balance of power away from the US. Aiyar was not only determined to push ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, to which the US had voiced strong objection on the ground that it would impede its efforts to isolate Iran, but he was actively putting in place an Asian gas grid that would link India with Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, China and Myanmar. In addition, Aiyar had infused new vigour into India's efforts to acquire shares in oil fields abroad and, most troubling to the US, had signed an agreement with China that would enable the state-owned oil companies of the two countries to bid jointly for companies, concessions and oil fields in other countries in the future.

...This was our overpowering desire to fall in line with the American policies—a desire that turned into hunger after the July 18 agreement and is turning into an obsession as the Bush visit draws near. My suspicions hardened when Deora's first observation after being sworn in was that there were many difficulties with the Iran-India gas pipeline project.

And now let's take what Cable #51088, titled, "UPA cabinet shuffle good for America" by then Ambassador Mulford goes on to offer in its summary:

Removing contentious and outspoken Iran pipeline advocate Mani Shankar Aiyar from the Petroleum portfolio, the UPA replaced him with the pro-US Murli Deora, who was one of several figures inducted with long-standing ties to the Indo/US Parliamentary Forum (IUPF) and the Embassy. The UPA also inducted a large number of serving MPs, including seven from the IUPF who have publicly associated themselves with our strategic partnership. To ensure that there are no foreign policy ripples before the President's visit, PM Singh retained the critical MEA portfolio and is likely to hold on to it until after the next session of Parliament concludes and Congress has weathered crucial Assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal in May. Viewing the shuffle as a shift towards the US, the left has become more alienated from Congress and more determined to obstruct UPA economic liberalization and foreign policy initiatives, all but ensuring political fireworks in the months ahead. The net effect of the reshuffle, however, is a Cabinet that is likely to be excellent for US goals in India (and Iran).

The cable then goes on to talk at length about what it terms the Aiyar controversy:

4. (C) Our Foreign Ministry contacts welcomed Aiyar's departure, commenting that his energy diplomacy had encroached on MEA turf too many times, leading to MEA appeals to the Prime Minister's Office to intercede. Despite the PMO warning to back off, Aiyar's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MPNG) continued to interfere with MEA attempts to craft policy, our contacts said, citing Pakistan, China, Burma, Bangladesh, Iran and Sudan as areas of intergovernmental conflict. Aiyar's unwillingness to step back reportedly led to the PM's decision to remove him from this high-profile portfolio, and cements MEA's position as the lead bureaucracy on strategic policy making.

5. (C) Aiyar's dismissal as Petroleum Minister will leave MEA officials breathing easier, and put MEA back in charge of policy toward these energy suppliers, including the ""problem children"" of Sudan, Burma and Iran. Unlike Aiyar, who cultivated a reputation for anti-Americanism, Murli Deora has been associated with the US/India relationship for years. Lacking Aiyar's ambitions (or entrepreneurial zeal), he will be a more cautious Minister. Clearing these lines of authority should make the PM's job of coordinating India's often-conflicting interests in energy security, trade, investment, anti-terrorism and stronger ties with the West a bit less muddled. His departure also weakens the holdouts fighting a rear-guard action against stronger engagement with the US, who would prefer that India hold true to its non-aligned traditions. Local journalists speculate that Aiyar's parting shot was the leak on January 28 of the USG demarche (ref A) protesting Indian investment in Syrian oil projects, spun by opponents of US-India engagement as another attempt by the US to dictate policy to India...

7. (C) Aiyar's replacement as Petroleum Minister, Murli Deora, is a stalwart supporter of stronger US-India ties, and one of the few high-profile Congress leaders who embraces the PM's vision of the bilateral relationship. He is currently the Chairman of the India-US Forum of Parliamentarians, a non-partisan, industry-sponsored counterpart to the US Congress's India Caucus that advocates closer political and economic ties to the United States. Deora is a Gandhi family loyalist and a wealthy Mumbai-based industrialist, and is currently serving his fourth term as a member of the Lok Sabha. Deora's only vulnerability, as a Mumbai politician, is his long-standing connection to the Reliance industrial group, which includes significant energy equities.

8. (C) One analyst at Petrowatch, an industry publication in Mumbai, noted that Aiyar,s dismissal removes a powerful supporter of the Iran Pipeline project and speculated that it could signal a shift in the GOI's energy-related foreign policy....
15 (C) ...The new entrants with strong pro-US credentials include Saifuddin Soz, Anand Sharma, Ashwani Kumar, Kapil Sibal and Aiyar's replacement Murli Deora. Seven of the new faces are also members of the pro-American Indo/US Parliamentary Forum, while the induction of so many entrants from the Rajya Sabha reflects the declining importance of a mass political base. The timing of the shuffle and the PM's retention of the MEA portfolio were dictated by the impending POTUS visit, and reflects the PM's commitment to ensure that there is no foreign policy surprises before the visit.

Incidentally, there had been some speculation among those who didn't bother to look up the archives about the identity of the journalist mentioned in the following paragraph in an article by Mr Siddharth Varadarajan, while analysing the cables on Iran’s nuclear programme:

“The challenge for Washington was to get India off the fence, especially when this would be seen in India as siding with the U.S. “An op-ed by a reliably anti-American reporter for The Hindu on September 1 encouraged the GOI to stand by Iran as the ‘litmus test’ of India’s willingness to pursue an ‘ independent’ foreign policy,” the cable noted.

Mr Varadarajan had to clarify on Twitter that the said “reliably anti-American repoter for The Hindu” was indeed Amit Baruah, former Islamabad and Colombo correspondent of the paper who joined BBC Hindi as its head.

Clearly, we are in for a treat of  "unprecedented insights" that these cables promise.

Watch this space.

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