By Brp Bhaskar
The Indian parliament was paralysed last week as the highly regarded newspaper, The Hindu, began dishing out reports based on United States embassy cables obtained from WikiLeaks.
The very first installment contained juicy material like differences between the prime minister and the national security adviser on relations with Pakistan and differences between India and the US on matters such as sharing of information relating to the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
One report drew said the US ambassador had informed his principals that a just concluded cabinet reshuffle was “likely to be excellent” for US goals.
Both the Right and the Left came down heavily on the government. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Jaswant Singh, who was external affairs minister in the AB Vajpayee government, wondered whether India’s foreign policy was drafted in the US.
He demanded that the government either deny the reports or take action. The opposition cannot be faulted for seeking political benefit from the leaked cables. However, it cannot be said to have assessed their worth properly.
The media probably contributed to the emergence of an exaggerated view of the importance of the cables by the way it handled them.
While the team of experienced journalists who produced The Hindu’s reports demonstrated good professional judgment, its Editor-in-Chief N. Ram hyped them as “a series of unprecedented insights” into India’s foreign policy and domestic affairs, “encountered, observed, tracked, interpreted, commented upon, appreciated, and pilloried by US diplomats.”
He observed that “the trained diplomat’s eye is almost always on the ball” and went on to elaborate: “These American diplomats have been trained to listen, probe and prod, massage egos, milk sources, report, and write (supplying accessible and, at times, witty and elegant headings and sub-headings) to inform, analyse, and amuse — as though they were full-time journalists.
“Many of them work like wire service beavers: long lunches, yes, but very often, same day reports of important meetings. Few things escape their notice.”
However, some readers, in letters published by the newspaper, revealed sound understanding of the nature of diplomatic intelligence.
“Should our media, the public and MPs spend so much time over such news?” asked one.
“The observations pertain merely to interpretations of what diplomats heard and gathered from small talk and gossip,” remarked another.
The most damaging document to emerge from the India cache was not about foreign or domestic policy as such but alleged use of bribery by the Congress party to save the last United Progressive Alliance government after the Left parties had withdrawn their support in a bid to block the Indo-US nuclear deal. The cash-for-vote charge was not new.
In 2008, three BJP members had created a sensation by bringing into the Lok Sabha currency notes which they said were part of Rs30 million offered to them to vote with the government.
A parliamentary probe into the incident was inconclusive. It ended with a recommendation for further investigation.
The leaked cable said a Congress minister’s aide had shown a US embassy official two chests of currency notes kept ready to buy MPs’ votes.
The BJP and the Left parties were not impressed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s argument that the parliamentary committee which probed the matter had found no evidence of payments. The BJP demanded his resignation.
The next day it was the BJP’s turn to squirm with the surfacing of a cable which said its leaders had told US diplomats not to read too much into their criticism of the UPA government for subservience as it was political rhetoric meant to score points.
Only about 50 of 5,100 cables accessed by the newspaper have seen the light of the day so far. It is not known how many more weeks of titillation lies ahead and how much embarrassment is awaiting whom.
While the authenticity of the cables can be questioned, the government cannot use it as an excuse to evade its responsibility to investigate crimes like vote-buying. It is another matter whether the system has the capacity to bring high-level bribe givers and takers to justice. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 21, 2011