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Updated: March 26, 2011 05:36 IST

MEA split over growing India-U.S. ties?

P. Sainath
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Indian official spoke of ‘two camps’ on the Iran uranium enrichment issue

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi was not unduly worried about an irate statement that India made in April 2008, just before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's New Delhi visit on April 29, rejecting America's call for India to urge Iran to curtail its nuclear programme. Embassy officials viewed this as a typical Indian ploy to assert independence when in fact they were more likely to have been committed “to solid forward movement with the U.S.” on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. They were more concerned that “the Left may use domestic legislation to single out and ban nuclear cooperation with the U.S. specifically, but because such a move would irrevocably harm U.S.-India relations, we think that even the weak-willed Congress Party would resist such a move.” That is how an April 24, 2008 cable from the Embassy (151154: secret/noforn) summed it up. Another important point, the cable noted, is a reported “split” in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) over “India's growing relationship with the USA.”

This was against the background of State Department spokesman Tom Casey's public statement of April 22, that Washington would like to see New Delhi call on Iran to cease enriching uranium. He had also asked that New Delhi put pressure on Iran to “become a more responsible actor on the world stage.” The MEA responded sharply, saying among other things, that both India and Iran were “perfectly capable of managing all aspects of their relationship with the appropriate degree of care and attention.” The MEA said “neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations as both countries believe that engagement and dialogue alone lead to peace.”

Statement rewritten

Interestingly, the cable speaks of an “MEA split over MEA statement on US and Iran” and records the following: “PolCouns [Political Counselor] protested to MEA Joint Secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar April 22 MEA's sharp statement, especially after Kumar had earlier shared with PolCouns an anodyne draft statement that reiterated standard Indian talking points on Iran. Kumar related that India's growing relationship with the U.S. has split MEA into two camps, and a member of the group that opposes any progress in U.S.-India relations rewrote the MEA statement. She remarked that Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon was furious about the result when he returned from Beijing earlier that day. Although PolCouns pressed, Kumar would not reveal who approved the re-worked public statement.”

While concerned by the government's “strong and unhelpful reaction” and the Left's endorsement of it, the assessment says: “As usual, the Indian government is stroking its Left and Muslim constituencies with cheap rhetoric and empty gestures prior — we hope — to solid forward movement with the U.S.”

It surmises that the public postures of the Indian government were “likely mere tactics in the UPA's domestic political machinations.” And that “the reality remains that India and Iran have a flimsy relationship, which the Congress Party has attempted to spin for the benefit of its Left allies and Muslim voters, who continue to deride India's two votes in the IAEA against Iran.” It even speculates that if the Left, persuaded by the UPA's tactics, “allows the nuclear initiative to move forward May 6, the sound and fury over Iran might have a useful dimension.” This did not happen, though, with the Left actually parting ways with the UPA over the nuclear deal.

While recording the strong anti-U.S. statements made by CPI(M) leaders Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat in Parliament, it hoped that “the visit by Ahmadinejad, sharp retorts to the anodyne U.S. statement, and the pledge to take the nuclear deal to Parliament could give the Left sufficient political cover to allow the UPA government to submit the safeguards agreement to the IAEA Board of Governors when they meet May 6 for the next UPA-Left committee meeting.”

It surmises that “Ahmadinejad's transit through Delhi will provide reassurance to the America-haters that India's foreign policy remains ‘independent' of the U.S. — a message reinforced by the truculent MEA statement. Meanwhile, the promise of a ‘sense of the House' gives the Left the opportunity to veto the initiative further down the road, potentially allowing the UPA government to advance the deal one more inch forward.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)

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