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WikiLeaks: Indian diplomats emerge unscathed

March 25, 2011 12:03 IST
'No single instance has come out so far to show that an Indian diplomat was enticed to say or do anything to please the Americans -- no honey traps, no Swiss accounts.'

Whatever the Indians did or said to their American counterparts was based on facts, policy and personal conviction,' says former diplomat T P Sreenivasan.

In an amazing turn of events, some newspapers and analysts, who are traditionally sceptical of everything American, have begun to swear not only by the leaked cables of the State Department, but also by the dubious facts and assessments contained in them.

No allowance is being given to the purpose and context of these communications or the likelihood of their writers being prejudiced or out right dishonest. They are being politicised and used as weapons of morale destruction.

Individual officers of the Foreign Service inevitably figure in the cables, as diplomatic conversations are their staple. What they show, contrary to the interpretation given by some, is that the Foreign Service has lived up to its reputation as being bright, strong on facts, independent and fiercely nationalistic.

This is particularly so, when conversations are reported without generalisations or narrow interpretations. At no level has the Service behaved with servility or greed.

These cables confirm the complaint I have heard from American diplomats that Indians never do what they are told to do; they have a hundred reasons to give why it cannot be done, while Pakistani diplomats accept advice and abide by it. "Indians do not believe in the dictum, 'friends, right or wrong', they keep telling us how wrong we are," said a US diplomat, when asked why the US seemed to prefer Pakistan to India.

India occasionally does things that please the Americans, but only if it is convinced that it is in the best interests of the nation.

No single instance has come out so far to show that an Indian diplomat was enticed to say or do anything to please the Americans -- no honey traps, no Swiss accounts. Whatever the Indians did or said to their American counterparts was based on facts, policy and personal conviction.

The classic example is the one about Rajiv Sikri who, the Americans say, spoke more like a Palestinian than an Indian.

I used to hear this in the United Nations in the days of decolonisation. They used to say that the Indian diplomats in the UN Council for Namibia were more adamant than the freedom-fighters of Namibia represented on it. Indeed, we spoke with conviction, not just articulated policy, when we spoke for Palestinians or against apartheid.

But it was eventually the Indians who always found a way to reconcile the positions of the freedom-fighters and their colonial masters. Some of the most seminal resolutions of the Security Council on Palestine were the handiwork of Indian diplomats.

Credibility is a virtue that Indian diplomats hold dear in their work and that too is evident in the leaked cables. At no stage has any American complained that the Indians misled them. We would never say different things to different interlocutors. That enables us to be forthright about what is possible and what is not and even to reveal the thought processes that went into decision-making. This applies to every IFS officer mentioned in these cables.

Diplomatic cables are the means that ambassadors use to convince their bosses back home that they are doing a good job. Since these cables reach the highest levels in the government, the craving to be noticed is a universal phenomenon. Telegrams have made and ruined careers in the Foreign Service.

There are stories about ambassadors being told off when they resort to blowing their own trumpets with an eye on promotion or a better posting.

An Indian ambassador is said to have received a cryptic reply to his three-page telegram: "Shut up!" I have seen an ambassador being ticked off by a secretary in the ministry of external affairs, saying, "If you cry wolf all the time, we would be unprepared when the wolf actually arrives."

Like in India, the Americans too would like their communications to be read by the bosses back home. Therefore, they write what they think the bosses would like to hear in the first place and add spice to make the cables grab attention. Every conversation reported by one of the participants in a conversation will give the impression that the writer was the winner of the argument.

To read the cables without knowing these facts is to misread the contents. No wonder, successive American ambassadors claim credit for converting the Indian diplomats to their point of view or even influence decision-making, including Cabinet formation. Truth may often be a casualty in such circumstances.

Diplomatic dispatches intersperse facts with opinions and assessments, which are subjective and not necessarily based on facts. This kind of composition, even if well intentioned, is open to misunderstanding. A stray comment or event makes the imagination run riot and conclusions are drawn from flights of fancy.

One particularly damaging story is about the difference in style between Nirupam Sen and his deputy, Ajai Malhotra (at India's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York). The relationship between the number one and number two in big missions, where the deputy is also a senior diplomat, is pregnant with possibilities for imaginative interpretation inside and outside the mission. As a result, the situation becomes delicate and difficult.

When their styles differ greatly, as in the case in question, others would read meaning in their being posted together. Sen makes no secret of his erudition and convictions, while Malhotra, though brilliant, is quiet, circumspect and politically correct. The inference is then drawn that the two have been posted together to get the right balance. Neither of them may have done or said anything to convey that impression. Knowing both of them, I would not even imagine that they would be indiscreet in any conversation with the Americans or others.

The report that Hardeep Puri declared that he was sent to New York to seek convergence of views with the Americans is equally ludicrous and concocted by an imaginative mind to give comfort to the Americans. He is there to seek convergence of views of 192 nations, not just one or even five.

Questions have been raised about the seeming intimacy and conviviality between Indian diplomats and their counterparts, as they are reported in the cables. Here, of course, it is the politicians, who appear to have opened their heart to the Americans. As far as diplomats are concerned, it is extremely important to win the trust of their interlocutors and the way to do it is to appear to be speaking in confidence.

Even known facts about the difference of opinion in the government on the right approach to Pakistan or the differences in the ruling coalition about the nuclear deal could be conveyed in such a manner that they are breaking news. The ambassadors will then report that they heard these things from the horse's mouth and take credit, even when the same information is available on the front pages of newspapers.

We have to wait and see the cables from the other embassies from Delhi to know whether these officials were exceptionally friendly to the Americans.

Sharing of information on colleagues when they are posted to a new station is an old and established diplomatic practice. The interests and tastes of diplomats are conveyed ahead of their arrival so that their counterparts can cultivate them.

Together with such information, it is possible that information on their views, real or perceived, may also get transmitted. Such information is often harmless as diplomats will be judged more by what they do at the new station than by what he did at the old station.

WikiLeaks has done a great disservice to the diplomatic profession by flashing a torch on the goings-on in the entrails of it. These may put diplomats on guard at least in the short term in their dealings with others and in reporting matters to their home governments. The embarrassment they have caused to serving American diplomats is much more than what has happened to the Indian Foreign Service.

In fact, the Indian Foreign Service has come out unscathed, if not shining, out of the WikiLeaks blitzkrieg.

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.

Read what another diplomat M K Bhadrakumar had to say about Wikileaks and the IFS on Rediff.com

T P Sreenivasan