New Wikileaks Cables Reveal India Foreign Policy Tensions

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The Indian newspaper The Hindu has published an absorbing, multi-story Wikileaks package today about 5,100 diplomatic cables covering everything from India-Pakistan relations after the November 2008 terror attacks to the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and influence-peddling in Nepal. There are also some revealing behind-the-scenes details of India’s internal power plays, which ought to explain why New Delhi so often seems to be sending mixed or contradictory foreign policy signals. The Hindu’s arrangement with Wikileaks —the first with a publication in Asia — is also a journalistic coup. Most of India’s other newspapers and television channels are in a furious, sensationalistic race to the bottom, but The Hindu is putting down its marker as the home of serious journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan and P. Sainath.

Here are juiciest bits from the first tranche of cables:

1. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi has a keen grasp on some of the divisions within the Indian bureaucracy. In a cable about M.K. Narayanan then India’s National Security Adviser, former Ambassador David Mulford notes:

Along with Principal Secretary TKA Nair, Narayanan constitutes what is now a Keralite “mafia” in the PMO. In a bureaucratic culture dominated by North Indian Hindi speakers, this Keralite lock on the PM’s inner bureaucratic circle represents something of an anomaly, which could in the long term create new faultlines around the Prime Minister.

The dominance of civil servants from the southern state of Kerala is, indeed, common chatter in diplomatic circles, particularly since it has continued well after this cable, with the appointment of Nirupama Rao as foreign secretary and Shivshankar Menon as National Security Adviser. But I think the repurcussions are even more important than Mulford’s warning that Prime Minister may become isolated from the rest of his government. India’s top-ranking foreign service officers — not all of them from Kerala — have become another power center in the government, sometimes working at odds to the Prime Minister’s stated policy positions.

2. The State Department naively tried to use the investigation into the Nov. 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai as an opportunity to improve India-Pakistan relations. In a cable from Jan. 3, 2009, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notes:

Department principals believe the Pakistani information is significant and reflects a genuine Pakistani effort to pursue justice in the Mumbai attacks. The Department believes this is an important, time-sensitive opportunity to pass this information to India and to press India to give the United States permission to share data the Federal Bureau of Investigation has gathered in India on the Mumbai attacks with the government of Pakistan.

India, on the other hand, was under no such illusions. Just two days later, then-Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon briefed diplomats on the Indian government’s investigations. He took a much tougher line on Pakistan and was prescient about the weakness of the civilian government, the persistence of the ISI’s links with Lashkar-e-Toiba and the threat that LeT poses to the rest of the world, not just to India. Two years later, Washington seems to have come around to New Delhi’s point of view.

3. The U.S. diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka to pursue a political solution and respect human rights in its fight against the Tamil Tigers began well before the last phase of the war, with cables dating back to 2007. The Sri Lankan foreign ministry in return delivered platitudes about a “code of conduct” to prevent human rights abuses and “acknowledged that mistakes have been made” in the displacement of 81,000 Tamils in the east of Sri Lanka. However early those efforts were, they proved entirely ineffective. In the last phase of the war in 2009, hundreds of thousands more Tamils were detained in camps, and the Sri Lankan government has yet to credibly account for the United Nations’ estimate of 7,000 civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka was also talking to the U.S. about upgrading its radar system:

Sri Lanka had been working with India to receive three dimensional radars but after years of not receiving them, decided to purchase a Chinese system that is now in the process of being installed.

That was an early sign of what was to come; China’s influence in Colombo has only gotten stronger.