For all its hands-off talk, the US has been watching India rather closely. The WikiLeaks revelations are no big deal, it is the sheer superficiality and gossipy nature that is a bit worrying, mainly because these tidbits will be seen as major issues.
They also reveal how the different Indias are being played against one another. It also exposes the vulnerability of the political class to American pressure tactics, or at least the desirability of US policy-makers to keep a hawk’s eye vigil as a pre-emptive drone. Here is an appraisal of a few of the subjects:
On Rahul Gandhi
“He is reticent in public, has shunned the spotlight and has yet to make any significant intervention in Parliament. His singular foray to centerstage during the UP elections was unremarkable. He is viewed as an empty suit and will have to prove wrong those who dismiss him as a lightweight. To do so, he will have to demonstrate determination, depth, savvy and stamina. He will need to develop his own networks of loyalists. Relying solely on family inheritance may get him the top job but it will not be enough to make for a successful longterm political career.”
Is this rocket science? Or is it a soft spot for Manmohan Singh? We do know that Dr. Singh is not the power centre, but he is the one with the degree, the “upright” one. He gets to keep both sides happy, and by both we mean the Congress chief and the US chief.
Interestingly, while sniffing at Rahul’s inheritance, the cables talk about him developing a network of loyalists, like any feudal lord. I think that his reticence has left the Americans befuddled. They do not know what to expect should he take on the prime ministerial role. They know about the ‘regular’ Congress leadership and the BJP. To be noted is that the economic progress ones get prominent mention.
The “empty suit”, from the US point of view, is bound to be a bit threatening.
The US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer had cautioned his government against any “activism” in Kashmir saying even a hint of it can prove counter-productive in view of India’s sensitivity to third party involvement on the issue. “In order for India’s efforts to restore sustainable peace and stability in Kashmir to succeed, its engagement with the separatists and with the Kashmiri people must be free of any perception of outside influence.” Roemer had outlined a slew of measures that Indian government should take to make forward movement on resolution of Kashmir issue, but warned against making these “prescriptive” in nature.
There are 20 of them, including panchayat elections, bus links, telephone connections between PoK and J&K and “to encourage separatists to participate in future elections by providing them incentives”.
The use of the term “perception of outside influence” denotes a) it exists; b) the US did not believe that many among the Indian ranks think of Pakistan as the third party; some even imagine that the Kashmiris are not a party to the dialogue. This is clever usage given American activism through certain activist lobbies.
Besides, are we to understand that the US is offering over-the-counter advice if it is not ‘prescribing’ these suggestions? They may prompt one to ask whether it is the chicken-egg story, for most of these measures have been attempted. So, was it the initiative of the government or was it ‘doctored’? What is the nature of the incentives provided to the separatists? While the movement in Kashmir has a tumultuous history, did the US jump in to consolidate the separation and even assist in some sort of infiltration well aware that Pakistan with a still-hurting ego would be keen and able?
These questions have some basis. Another cable mentions that one faction of the Hurriyat was working against another and that Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was against hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani going for medical treatment to the US as he would “stir up trouble”.
This is not news. The news is that he was denied a visa because “the US official had believed Geelani's travel will ‘physically’ take him out of the political picture in India”. It becomes clear that the intent is to promote a dogs-and-bone situation.
American covert policy in the state can be damaging in the long run, especially if it plans to ‘quit’ Afghanistan.
“Modi is using his strong base in Gujarat to position himself for the BJP power struggle and to crow about Gujarat’s investment-friendly (but certainly not minority-friendly) record,” says one of the cables which were uploaded earlier this week by WikiLeaks. The cables sent by US diplomats in New Delhi focus on Modi's rising stature in the BJP and claim that “Modi has his eyes on bigger things”. In an assessment going back to 2005, the cables suggest Modi could be the most popular BJP leader and a potential PM candidate.
The BJP would like to keep Modi as a potent symbol, and he too is aware that at the national level he will not cut ice. Being a shark in a pond is better than being a goldfish in an ocean. Has he been on any major consultative committees where party matters are concerned? US interest in him is understandable because of the huge NRI population from Gujarat, and the fact that he has a loyal constituency of followers there. The money that should be part of the US economy being siphoned off for “Gujarati asmita (self-respect)” would not go down too well with the adopting country.
On Bengal’s commies and Taslima Nasreen
A cable sent by US embassy in Delhi to Washington after the November 2007 riots in Kolkata was titled, “Author Taslima Nasreen: pawn in political web”. It says, “After Nandigram, Nasreen represented a convenient foil for both the CPM and fundamentalist Muslim leaders in Kolkata.....it is clear India’s main political parties could not care less about Nasreen or her writing beyond how their parties’ reactions to events play to voters. Congress and the CPM continued to snipe at each other while searching for a solution that does not offend their all-important Muslim vote bank…The CPM is being accused by some of manufacturing the controversy in order to drive Nandigram out of the front pages. “
Although Nandigram was a Communist Party-corporate plot, the place where the plant was to be set up and would uproot the people had a majority of Muslims – 65 per cent. Reports state that 600 Dalits and Muslims died in the violence. Asking Taslima to leave would not replace the ire – restricted to the community as well as on the issue of landlessness – over the takeover. This was not the first time Nasreen was denied extension of the visa; if anyone was truly upset over her it was the Bengali intellectuals, whose personal relationships with her she had written about in her first memoir. Lajja, her book about a Hindu family in Bangladesh, was one of those convenient ruses used for another sort of vote bank.
If there is any tacit US sympathy for the writer, then it is a business decision. A stake in industrial units is what the American corporations have always strived for, the Gates-Buffett philanthropy being part of the deal-making big picture.
The cables on Uttar Pradesh chief minister are a bit strange.
When she needed new sandals, her private jet flew empty to Mumbai to retrieve her preferred brand," a cable dated October 23, 2008 reported, adding she employed food tasters to guard against poisoning. "She constructed a private road from her residence to her office, which is cleaned immediately after her multiple vehicle convoy reaches its destination," the cable said in an analysis of her "eccentricities, whims and insecurities".
This fits the stereotype and again seeks to use one India against another. In this case, the dynamics are more nuanced and devious. She is seen as the Sarah Palin prototype when she is probably more like Barack Obama – the ‘other’, for whom ‘change’ is symbolic and, despite all the flaws, can become a thorny issue.
The reductionism is par for the course, and we have seen it in India too as I mentioned in an earlier piece. Many world leaders have their eccentricities and whims. Even Jinnah and Nehru were known to get their suits tailored abroad. There is an element of ostentation, but is this what the US is bothered about? Or is it the fact that its fat middle class dream gets shattered?
Of course, being Mayawati means not keeping quiet. She has shot the messenger:
“There is no iota of truth in the cable leaks. It is a blatant lie to tarnish the image of my government. The owner of WikiLeaks seems to have gone mad. He should be sent to a mental asylum by the country he belongs to and in case there is no place for him, he should be sent to UP. We will put him in the Agra mental asylum.”
Julian Assange has responded with:
“Mayawati has betrayed rational thought. The question is, has she also betrayed the Dalit? The allegations… are made by US diplomats in their private communications back to Hillary Clinton. If chief minister Mayawati has a problem with the contents of these communications she needs to take it up with Hillary. I ask that Mayawati admit her error and apologize.”
I am intrigued. How has she betrayed the Dalits? Assange sounds no different from the US administration. It is the Dalits who elected her, and she is as much of a totem for them as Obama is for the Blacks.
In politics, you have to shed your skin and wear a mask. It is not the best thing to do, but where skin and caste matter so much this kind of upward mobility goes beyond opportunism.
(c) Farzana Versey