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Act One, Scene One

Wikileaks papers echo Indian strategy, confirm fears about Pakistan

Act One, Scene One
Reuters (From Outlook, December 13, 2010)
Act One, Scene One

“Diplomacy,” it is said, “is the business of handling a porcupine without disturbing the quills.” This often involves dissembling, negotiations behind closed doors, adopting a public posture in contrast to what is said in private, and achieving goals without courting popular displeasure. Rarely have we got a peep into the inner workings of the shadowy world of diplomacy. But now, courtesy Julian Assange’s Wikileaks website, which made public a cache of 2,10,000 cables sent to Washington from different United States missions worldwide, the dark crevices of diplomacy have been thrown open to the cold light of public scrutiny. Assagne has justified the leak  saying people have a right to know the assessments of diplomats about world leaders and events, for these are the inputs that go into framing foreign policy.

Assange’s assertion could fundamentally alter the nature of public debate, but, for the moment, the leaked cables have embarrassed governments no end, particularly that of the US. Though India hasn’t yet been caught in the crosshairs of the Wikileaks revelations, it is only because cables sent from the US embassy in New Delhi hadn’t yet been released at the time of writing. Perhaps this explains the temporary enthusiasm in South Block. The reason: a clutch of Wikileaks documents vindicate India’s controversial stance on Iran, as also on Pakistan’s culpability in fomenting terror in India. As a senior diplomat gushed, “It’s the equivalent of America’s confessions on Pakistan, as it upholds all our charges against Islamabad.”

Take Iran, against which New Delhi had voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, consequently courting sharp criticism at home. It was said India had become a handmaiden of Washington, compromising its hitherto independent foreign policy and angering the Muslim world. A Wikileaks cable, however, quotes Saudi king Abdullah Abdulaziz asking America to bomb nuclear facilities of Iran. He further said it was the overwhelming view of Sunni leaders in the Arab world. So then, didn’t it make sense for New Delhi, in realpolitik terms, to flow with the dominant opinion in the Arab world, instead of standing sentinel to Iran’s nuclear quest?

The leaks show the US has limited hold over Pakistan vis-a-vis terror on Indian soil. India can expect more attacks.

Saudi Arabia’s deep antipathy towards Iran has already prompted some Indian commentators to suggest that Delhi should reassess its West Asia policy. Partly, the Saudi-Iran animosity is the outcome of the Shia-Sunni rivalry. Shouldn’t India then side with the more numerous Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia than with the minority Shia bloc spearheaded by a combative Iran? No, says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “India has important equities in the region. Our interest lies in striking a balance between the two sides.” A hasty move could jeopardise India’s energy needs, much of which is met from the region.

The Wikileaks cable on the secret request by the Saudi king and other Arab allies of the US also underscores the hypocrisy of world leaders. Really, barring experts, who would have thought that the Arab world considers Iran a greater threat to stability than Israel?

It’s the Wikileaks cables on Pakistan that explains the current enthusiasm among Indian diplomats. These vindicate India’s allegations that the Pakistani establishment is in cahoots with the terror groups, that the link between the two can’t be snapped even through financial incentives, and that the country’s leadership is bitterly divided. Obviously, the leaked cables hold no great surprise to the Indians, except for demonstrating the remarkable convergence between Washington and New Delhi on their perceptions about Pakistan, which haven’t been apparent till now. Says former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, “We are happy that the US has also come to the same conclusions that we have been asserting about Pakistan.”

Some cables, though, puncture popular notions in India about certain Pakistani leaders. For instance, president Asif Ali Zardari is quoted telling US officials that Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, tipped off Jamat-ud-Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed about an imminent UN sanction on him after 26/11. Forewarned, Saeed withdrew money from his bank accounts before the UN decision was announced. And to think it was during the prime ministerial tenure of Sharif that Atal Behari Vajpayee made his famous trip to Lahore, sparking off hopes of Indo-Pak detente.

Much maligned Zardari may be in India, but the Wikileaks cables demonstrate that among the most prominent Pakistani leaders, he’s perhaps the only one unequivocally committed to combating terror as well as nurturing peace with India. It’s a pity he can’t sweep aside the wishes of the army, which Zardari fears, as one Wikileaks cable says, might decide to assassinate him. He continues to remain in power only because army chief Ashfaq Kayani distrusts Sharif even more. In other words, the cables underscore two vital points relevant to India—the army remains the principal power even in democratic Pakistan, and Islamabad will habitually employ terror groups as a foreign policy tool.

The cables suggest Pakistan can be weaned from supporting terror groups if Washington reviews India’s activities in Afghanistan, resolves the Kashmir issue and stops sale of arms to India. Mansingh scoffs at the suggestion: “If they say no amount of incentive will work to break the Pakistani link with the terror organisations, then how does Kashmir or stopping arms sale help?” Considering India’s opposition to third-party mediation and the inordinate time a complex issue like Kashmir takes to resolve, India can’t rule out terror attacks on its soil in the future.

More significantly, the cables show there are limits to the extent America can pressure Pakistan to satisfy India’s demands on terror. Unable to deter Pakistan from supporting the Haqqani network, which has undermined America’s war efforts in Afghanistan, it’s implausible that Washington can compel Pakistan to disband anti-India militant groups. As Sibal says, “The cable shows America’s helplessness in dealing with Pakistan, the bankruptcy in US policy.”

So then, of what use are the Wikileaks cables really? Says former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, “There is nothing earth-shattering in the cables. But I will not be surprised if the revelation of the cables has come as a major embarrassment for the US government.” Perhaps Natwar should wait to make a final assessment till the cables from the American embassy in Delhi go live on the Wikileaks website.

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