M K Narayanan had nothing to gain by misrepresenting the Indian position to Timothy Roemer, while the latter had to impress upon his government that his demarche on the phone was very effective.
Ambassadors are known to write their cables in a way that pleases their masters back home, says T P Sreenivasan.
Former National Security Adviser and present West Bengal Governor M K Narayanan had barely taken off from Thiruvananthapuram after honouring Ambassador Nirupama Menon Rao with the Sree Chithira Thirunal award for outstanding achievements, when the news broke out about the latest Wikileaks revelations.
The report was that Narayanan had indicated to the then US ambassador Timothy J Roemer, that India was not serious about the demand for extradition of David Coleman Headley.
In a cable to the State Department in December 2009, Roemer said Narayanan had suggested to him that the government was not actually keen on the extradition issue, but wanted to be seen to be insisting on it.
According to Roemer, Narayanan told him that 'it was difficult not to be making the effort' but the government was not seeking extradition 'at this time.'
Roemer was apparently trying to convince Delhi that the threat of extradition to India could cause Headley's cooperation to dry up, but that by allowing the judicial process to continue, more information could be obtained and passed on to India. He claimed that Narayanan showed understanding of the American position.
Certain sections of the press and the Opposition rushed to the conclusion that the government was guilty of doubletalk and that it was never serious about bringing Headley to book.
Narayanan told the press in unequivocal terms that India had always been serious about Headley's extradition and he did not convey anything contrary to Roemer. As for the correspondence between Roemer and the State Department, the questions should be addressed to the Americans, he said.
This should have ended the speculation, but the talking heads on national and regional television channels continued to speculate over the conversation, seeking to find motives of both sides.
Asked about the wording of the leaked cable and Narayanan's response, I said on television that it was a matter of Narayanan's words against Roemer's and that we should give greater credence to Narayanan than to Roemer.
My reasoning was simply that Narayanan had nothing to gain by misrepresenting the Indian position to Roemer, while the latter had to impress upon his government that his demarche on the phone was very effective.
Ambassadors are known to write their cables in a way that pleases their masters back home. These are not recorded conversations, but first person accounts from memory, which could lead to wrong interpretations in cold print. As long as there is no change in policy and the Americans are as keen on finding the truth as we are, there is no cause for concern.
Apart from the embarrassment that this cable has caused, Wikileaks have caused considerable damage to diplomacy as a profession not only in the US, but also worldwide.
Diplomats should have the facility to convey information and opinions to their governments without any fear of their getting into unauthorised hands.
Much of international diplomacy is conducted in unofficial conversations over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a meal.
There will be no note takers or pieces of paper so that diplomats can explore different ideas without being held to any specific positions. But even informal conversations have to be reported home as policy inputs.
The fear that these communications will come out in the open will inhibit diplomats from engaging in these conversations, which are the life blood of diplomacy.
As for the US diplomats, the damage is even more as people around the world will be reluctant to confide in them. Surprisingly, very few American ambassadors have lost their jobs on account of the embarrassment of Wikileaks, but many careers may have been affected by the indiscretions that these cables have revealed.
If Jyoti Basu or Pinarayi Vijayan, the hard core Communists and US baiters felt confident about sharing their thoughts with US diplomats, that was because the feeling that their conversations would remain confidential. Wikileaks must have closed those windows of opportunity forever.
The furor that a meeting that some of the Communist leaders had with the US consul general in Chennai and his political counsellor was amazing as it is no secret that at least three ministers of the former Left Democratic Front government in Kerala had taken missions to the US with the specific purpose of seeking investment and other kinds of cooperation at the very time when their leaders were opposing the nuclear deal and soon thereafter.
Perhaps, the factional fights within the Communist Party in Kerala may have fuelled the fire because the ideologue, V S Achuthanandan was clearly hostile to the US officials while the party boss, Pinarayi Vijayan, not only solicited direct investment, but also played down the agitation against Coca-Cola as a local problem in the area it was held.
The party had even opposed the appointment of someone, who was on the board of Coca- Cola as a member of the State Planning Board. The Wikileaks cable noted this divide in the party.
Even more importantly, the Kerala Wikileaks revealed that two ministers confided in the Americans that there was a Muslim fundamentalist menace in Kerala and that foreign funding was available to them. A minister in the current government was accused of having been supportive of such groups for political reasons. The Americans must have been very attentive to such allegations as they were looking for clues around the globe about the spread of terrorism.
All concerned have denied that they had said such things to the Americans, but, as it happens, the Americans seemed to have greater credibility with the public than our politicians. Funnily enough, the very politicians, who were dismissing Wikileaks as American lies, had no qualms about quoting the same Wikileaks to score points over their opponents.
With all the problems that Wikileaks unleashed, the silver lining was that no Indian diplomat or senior official was caught saying anything improper to the Americans. Narayanan was no exception. Many of them, who were quoted in the cables, said anything out of line with policy. Some of them were even frank and forthright with the Americans about US policy. But the politicians did not come out so well as some of them appeared to show off their influence or knowledge to junior US diplomats.
Wikileaks came like the sun rising at midnight or someone peeping into the makeup room of a play behind the stage. They revealed some of the raw material which goes into diplomacy, which is rarely seen during the day or on the stage. But such raw material too is an essential ingredient of international intercourse and it should be seen as such.
But what matters is what the nations do in the daylight and the actors do on the stage. Modern technology has affected all professions and diplomacy cannot escape it, however conservative that profession may like to remain.
It will be a pity if Wikileaks rob diplomats of their ability to engage in informal discussions and to convey their assessments to their governments without fear of being exposed.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.
He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.
For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.