Cabinet reshuffles in India clearly have foreign policy implications, serving external objectives. This at any rate is the reading provided by a U.S. Embassy cable sent on January 30, 2006 (51088: confidential), sent by Ambassador David C. Mulford to Washington.

The January 2006 Cabinet reshuffle, which saw the removal of “contentious and outspoken Iran pipeline advocate” Mani Shankar Aiyar and the appointment of “pro-US” Murli Deora as Petroleum Minister was described by the American Embassy as signifying a “determination to ensure that US/India relations continue to move ahead rapidly.”

The changes also strengthened the cadre of “modernizing reformers” at the top in the Government of India, the Ambassador reported. The net effect of the reshuffle, he said, was a Cabinet that is “likely to be excellent for US goals in India (and Iran).”

These Cabinet changes, in January 2006, mark a steady shift to the Right, a pro-U.S. direction within the first tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), more than two years before the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal came to fruition. The American Embassy clearly tracked India's tilt to the Right from early 2006 well ahead of UPA-I's rupture with the Left parties in July 2008. Although the nuclear deal was the tipping point that led to the Left's withdrawal of support to UPA-I, the cable shows that the foreign policy gap had begun to widen long before that.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Mulford could sense the Left's uneasiness more than any UPA leader could at that time. “The undeniable pro-American tilt of the Cabinet shuffle,” Mr. Mulford added, “has infuriated the Left, which will view it as a throwing down of the gauntlet and an invitation to open warfare.”

Mr. Mulford noted that Murli Deora was one of several figures inducted with longstanding ties to the Indo/U.S. Parliamentary Forum (IUPF) and the Embassy. “The UPA inducted a large number of serving MPs, including seven from the IUPF who have publicly associated themselves with our strategic partnership,” he added. “To ensure that there are no foreign policy ripples before the President's visit, PM Singh retained the critical MEA portfolio and is likely to hold on to it until after the next session of Parliament concludes and Congress has weathered crucial Assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal in May.”

The Embassy's Foreign Ministry contacts welcomed Mr. Aiyar's departure, and commented that his energy diplomacy had “encroached on MEA turf too many times,” leading to MEA appeals to the Prime Minister's Office to intercede. “Despite the PMO warning to back off, Aiyar's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas continued to interfere with MEA attempts to craft policy, our contacts said, citing Pakistan, China, Burma, Bangladesh, Iran and Sudan as areas of inter-governmental conflict.”

Mr. Aiyar's unwillingness to step back reportedly led to the Prime Minister's decision to remove him from this high-profile portfolio, and “cements MEA's position as the lead bureaucracy on strategic policy making.”

Mr. Mulford pointed out that unlike Mr. Aiyar, who cultivated a reputation for anti-Americanism, Mr. Deora has been associated with the U.S.-India relationship for years. Mr. Aiyar's “self-promoting maverick diplomacy” was too much for the Prime Minister to accommodate.

Mr. Deora's “long-standing connection” to the Reliance industrial group, which includes significant energy equities, was described by the cable as his “only vulnerability.” Besides Mr. Deora, the new entrants with strong pro-U.S. credentials, according to the cable, included Mr. Saifuddin Soz, Mr. Anand Sharma, Mr. Ashwani Kumar, and Mr. Kapil Sibal.