In an amazing turn of events, some Indian newspapers and analysts, who are traditionally skeptical of every- thing 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
politicized 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
This is particularly so, when conversations are reported
without generalizations 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
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
I used to hear this in the United Nations in the days of
decolonization. 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
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 com-
munications 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
Indian diplomats emerge unscathed
No single instance has emerged so far to show that an Indian diplomat
was enticed to say or do anything to please the Americans
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit with then Ambassador to India David C Mulford in New Delhi, January 5, 2009. Mulford last week said US diplomatic cables are ‘generally accurate’
VIJAY MATHUR/ REUTERS
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
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 Center, Thiruvananthapuram, and a
member of India’s National Security Advisory Board.