Asif Ali Zardari's thumbs up for Manmohan Singh; Americans bet on Pranab Mukherjee

The WikiLeaks documents provided interesting glimpses into how others saw Indian leaders — who they believed they could do business with; who was the one to watch for; and who could be quietly ignored.

The view from Islamabad was that the only person in the Indian government worthy of “respect” and trust was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The jury was still out on the “rest of the Indian government.”

The Americans, taking the long view, were inclined to put their money on Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who they saw as a potential future Prime Minister — and thus the man to be cultivated.

President Asif Ali Zardari shared the Pakistani assessment with U.S. Senator John Kerry during a meeting in Islamabad on February 16, 2010, according to a cable from U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson.

The cable dated February 23, 2010 (250192; secret) recorded: “Zardari conceded that Singh deserved respect, but said he was not confident about the rest of the Indian government.”

Mr. Zardari made the remark when Mr. Kerry, recalling his meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh, told him that the Indian Prime Minister was “very open'' to negotiations with Pakistan “starting with the upcoming discussions between Pakistan and India's Foreign Secretaries.''

“Kerry said Zardari should put his concerns on the negotiating table as there was a real opportunity for productive conversation between India and Pakistan now: ‘You could arrive at a surprising consensus of mutual understanding,' '' the cable recounted. Upon which Mr. Zardari acknowledged his government's admiration for Dr. Manmohan Singh while expressing scepticism about the rest of the pack in the UPA government.

Meanwhile, the Americans' fondness for Mr. Mukherjee appeared to derive from what they regarded as his usefulness because of his “clout” in the government.

A cable dated June 21, 2005 (35111: secret) portrayed Mr. Mukherjee, then the Defence Minister, as “in effect, the deputy prime minister'' with aspirations for “the top job.” Highlighting his “close personal ties to the Congress Party's kingmaker Sonia Gandhi” and his “political influence” across the government, it says: “Mukherjee chairs as many as 18 ministerial working groups — far more than any other minister — and participates in several others. These influential groups deliberate on and facilitate government approval of national policies such as the Patents Act and the recently enacted WMD Bill.”

The cable, written by Ambassador David Mulford, added that Mr. Mukherjee's “influence over both GOI policy and public opinion is rivalled only by that of the Prime Minister himself.”

“He is, in effect, the Deputy Prime Minister, and we believe he aspires to the top job. By demonstrating our understanding of his influence beyond the military realm, it may be easier to advance our defense-related objectives.”

On a lighter note, Mr. Mulford noted: “Though articulate, he is soft-spoken and speaks with a heavy Bengali accent which can sometimes be difficult for Americans to understand.”

And what about Rahul Gandhi?

In a cable dated March 3, 2005 (28056: secret) Mr. Mulford quoted journalist Saeed Naqvi as calling him “lacklustre” and one who suffered from “personality problems'' and who “will never become prime minister.'' However, Mr. Mulford was more cautious in giving his own assessment. He stated: “Despite signs of growing unhappiness from Congress insiders regarding Rahul, however, he continues to be the subject of press reports that rave about his participation in the early January Congress Youth training camp and suggest that he is preparing to take the mantle of the ‘leader of young India' and ‘blossoming into a leader with mass acceptability.' During the two-day youth training session, Rahul engaged in interactive discussions ranging from pesticides in Cola products — he was against closing the plants — to defending the GOI's globalization policy and economic reforms. Given this publicity machine that Rahul enjoys, we, unlike Naqvi, are not yet prepared to write him off just yet.”

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