The United Progressive Alliance government's policy towards West Asia is dictated by its anxiety to keep the “politically influential Muslim vote bloc” in good humour, thus forcing it to walk a “tight rope” and refrain from engaging “too deeply” with the region. This is the recurring assessment sent to headquarters by confidential U.S. Embassy cables, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks. New Delhi's reactions to Hamas's election victory in 2006, to Israel's attacks on Lebanon later that year, and to its air strikes on Gaza in 2008 are all interpreted through this lens.

‘Gutless’

Communications to Washington from senior American diplomats in the New Delhi Embassy constantly portray India's West Asia policy as being hostage to the Muslim factor in domestic politics. In its bid not to antagonise Muslim voters, the cables explained, the government was forced to play down its “strategic relationship” with Israel.

In one raw cable dated March 31, 2006 (58913: confidential), Ambassador David Mulford characterised India's public position on its relations with Israel as “gutless” and lacking in “moral clarity.” “The underlying straddle of meek statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict combined with full-steam-ahead engagement with Israel on practical and strategic matters,” he wrote scathingly, “is unlikely to change. We should not expect any public courage from India anytime soon when it comes to condemning Hamas or reacting on [Ehud] Olmert's recent victory. Pragmatism trumps moral clarity in Delhi's Middle East policy.”

In Mr. Mulford's view, India had “chosen to remain silent” on Mr. Olmert's victory in order “to avoid ruffling Muslim sentiments.” He added: “India will wait until other nations voice their opinions and only then may decide to speak up, if forced or if advantageous to do so, a feature typical of the GOI when it comes to reacting particularly about Middle Eastern issues, given the importance of the Muslim vote bank to the ruling Congress party.”

In a cable dated August 4, 2006 (73697: confidential), a senior U.S. diplomat, Geoff Pyatt, wrote that Indian condemnation of Israeli military actions in Lebanon and Gaza was an attempt to “manage” the Muslim anger over the issue, “conveniently overlooking the increasingly tight security and technology relationship between the two countries.” Another cable, dated December 29, 2008 (184997: confidential), attributed India's strong reaction to Israeli attacks in Gaza to “public consumption.” It was in keeping with “India's past practice of publicly condemning Israeli actions for public consumption, yet privately protecting healthy bilateral relations.”

“The Government of India again walks a tightrope influenced by its election cycle,” the Embassy cable summed up. “It must convey to Israel that it understands Israel's current plight while doing its diplomatic duty to condemn what is seen by many here as oppressive tactics. From time to time Muslim leaders in India organize protests when they feel the GOI has not taken a strong enough stance against Israel during heightened periods of violence, and it is likely that by quickly condemning the air strikes, the Indian government felt it could preempt such demonstrations.”