Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon thought presentation of inspection regime needed rewriting

More than the substance of on-site inspections, the Indian government was worried about the public reaction to American inspectors getting access to the Prime Minister's plane, American officials dealing with the matter of end-use monitoring for the VVIP Boeing jets concluded. On May 14, Ambassador David Mulford met Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon to discuss the matter and “urged him to begin ‘sensible negotiations' to resolve the enhanced end-use monitoring (EEUM) arrangements for the VVIP jets quickly (153810, May 14, 2008, confidential). The cable quotes Mr. Menon saying he had been through the proposed amendment and that he felt “there are ‘no insurmountable difficulties in reaching an understanding that would meet your requirements and ours'.”

‘Reassuring’

Though Mr. Menon “found the amendment ‘reassuring,' because the details that it laid out [for keeping the LAIRCM secure] mirror those that the Indian government also wishes to enforce”, Ambassador Mulford wrote. “We have a huge interest to make sure it is well protected — not just by us but by others — and we have no problem with high standards, the Foreign Secretary stressed. At the same time, notes the Ambassador, “Menon also pointed out that, because the aircraft attracts high-level political attention, the presentation of the inspections regime needed rewrQing [sic]”.

Mr. Mulford ended his cable with the following comment: “At no point in the conversation did Menon reject inspections, and he appeared resigned to on-site verification, as shown by his acceptance of a site visit by negotiators. The problems that the Foreign Secretary saw in the US' proposed amendment dealt primarily with the cosmetic presentation it seemed, which he believes gives the impression of associating the VVIP aircraft, and by extension the Indian Government, too closely with the U.S.”

The Indian stake

In a meeting with Mr. Mulford (155283, May 23, 2008, confidential), the NSA “agreed that the Indian government had a stake in protecting the LAIRCM's technology, and he recognized that if the U.S. and India prolong negotiations over the EEUM, ‘our Prime Minister will not have a plane'.” But, he insisted, “We need to work in a manner that provides comfort to both sides.” Mr. Mulford ended his cable with the observation that “As Narayanan makes clear, on-site U.S. inspections of the prime minister's jet make the Indian government pause”. The risk, he wrote, is “that the UPA government's opponents might use the image of U.S. officials tramping around the Indian head of state's plane to garner votes in the upcoming general elections”.

Such an image “fits into the campaign messages already espoused by the opposition BJP, which accuses the government of an overriding weakness, and the Communists, who denounce the growing friendship with the U.S. But our willingness to resolve the issue in New Delhi at a high level could help alleviate the Indians' anxiety and point the way towards a middle ground that protects both the LAIRCM and the UPA government”.

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