After a meeting with India's National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan in August 2009, American Ambassador Timothy Roemer was driven to the conclusion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was isolated within his own government in his “great belief” in talks and negotiations with Pakistan.
During the interaction, Mr. Narayanan, who had been described by the Embassy in a January 12, 2005 cable (25259: confidential) as a long-time Gandhi family loyalist “who is seen as part of the traditional ‘coterie' around Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi,” came through as a hardliner on Pakistan, never afraid to voice his differences with Prime Minister Singh.
In an August 11, 2009 cable (220281: confnoforn), sent a day after the meeting, Mr. Roemer noted that Mr. Narayanan, a former chief of the Intelligence Bureau who is now Governor of West Bengal, readily conceded that he had differences with Prime Minister Singh on Pakistan. The Prime Minister was a “great believer” in talks and negotiations with Islamabad, but Mr. Narayanan himself was “not a great believer in Pakistan.”
The cables have been accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.
The NSA recounted to the Ambassador how after the Prime Minister spoke of India's “shared destiny” with Pakistan, he said: “you have a shared destiny; we don't.”
Mr. Roemer's take on this: “Narayanan made the comments above with some joviality and was totally complimentary of the PM throughout the discussion. He made a point of commending PM Singh's intellect, economic prowess among the G-20 leaders, and self-effacing manner as an ‘accidental politician' and former civil servant like him.”
Mr. Roemer observed that although Mr. Narayanan's tough stance on Pakistan was well known, his readiness to “distance himself from his boss [Manmohan Singh] in an initial courtesy call would suggest that PM Singh is more isolated than we thought within his own inner circle in his effort to ‘trust but verify' and pursue talks with Pakistan particularly in the wake of the hammering his government took from opposition for the July Sharm al-Sheikh statement with [Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza] Gilani.” (The BJP had criticised the statement for de-linking the dialogue process from action on terror.)
This, the Ambassador inferred, certainly confirms the “risks and volatility” the Prime Minister faces in opening up a new dialogue with Pakistan, and means increased Indian sensitivity to “perceived pressure from outsiders, particularly the USG [United States Government], to re-engage with Islamabad.”
The Ambassador's comment on the NSA's “rather blunt assertion” that foreign policy was being run out of the Prime Minister's Office was that it lent “credence to recent media chatter describing a marginalized Ministry of External Affairs under FM Krishna [Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna].”
When asked by the Ambassador which other, like-minded Indian government officials would be key partners in advancing the U.S.-India agenda, “Narayanan did not respond and instead noted that all matters related to nuclear and space issues, defense, and foreign policy should be directed to him.” The NSA reiterated that foreign policy was firmly in the hands of the PMO.
‘An old spook’
During the meeting, Mr. Narayanan frequently referred to his status as an “old spook” and described counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation as the most “vibrant” areas of U.S.-India cooperation.While he could often pull rank on intelligence and security issues, on other topics he did not get the same degree of cooperation from other Ministries, the NSA told the Ambassador.
The NSA also conveyed to the Ambassador a desire to work closely to develop an ambitious agenda for Prime Minister Singh's November 2009 visit to Washington.
Interestingly, looking ahead to the appointment of Mr. Narayanan as the NSA, the Embassy noted in the 2005 cable: “Along with Principal Secretary TKA Nair, Narayanan constitutes what is now a Keralite ‘mafia’ in the PMO. In a bureaucratic culture dominated by North Indian Hindi speakers, this Keralite lock on the PM's inner bureaucratic circle represents something of an anomaly, which could in the long term create new faultlines around the Prime Minister.”