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‘Kissinger Cables’ Offer Window Into Indian Politics of the 1970s

April 8, 2013, 7:07 am Comment

By NEHA THIRANI BAGRI


Indira Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, at the site of India’s first underground nuclear test in Pokhran, Rajasthan, in Dec. 1974.

The “Kissinger Cables,” a collection of U.S. diplomatic cables released on Monday by WikiLeaks, contain some fascinating revelations about the political scenario in India in the 1970s. Here are the five great insights about India in the WikiLeaks release:

India’s first nuclear test was possibly motivated by political considerations:

According to this cable, sent from New Delhi to the Department of State, India’s first nuclear test on May 18, 1974, was motivated by domestic politics. The cable says that the nuclear test had been done at a time when the Indian government was tackling an economic slowdown, increasing discontent and rising political unrest.

“We are inclined to believe that this general domestic gloom and uncertainty weighed significantly in the balance of India’s nuclear decision,” reads the cable sent on the date of the nuclear test. “The need for a psychological boost, the hope of recreated atmosphere of exhilaration and nationalism that swept the country after 1971 – contrary to our earlier expectation – may have tipped the scales.”

The cable adds that the U.S. Embassy was not aware of any recent military pressure on the Indian government, and that the decision to demonstrate nuclear capability may also have been driven by a need to regain its position in international politics, where India “has felt it had been relegated to the sidelines with its significance ignored and its potential role downplayed.”




During his stint as an Indian Airlines pilot, Rajiv Gandhi might have acted as a middleman for the Swedish company Saab-Scania, which was trying to persuade the Indian Air Force to buy its Viggen fighter aircraft. This cable, dated Oct. 21, 1975, says that a Swedish Embassy official had informed the U.S. Embassy that the “main Indian negotiator” for Saab-Scania is Rajiv Gandhi while the French company Dassault’s chief negotiator was the son-in-law of the then Indian air marshal, Om Prakash Mehra. The cable added that Indira Gandhi did not want to purchase the British Jaguar because of “her prejudices against the British.” The Swedish diplomat “expressed irritation at the way Mrs. Gandhi is personally dominating negotiations, without involvement of Indian Air Force officers.”

“The Swedes here have also made it quite clear they understand the importance of family influences in the final decision in the fighter sweepstakes,” said another cable, dated Feb. 6, 1976. “Offhand we would have thought a transport pilot not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification.”

In 1974 India returned 195 prisoners of war to Pakistan, originally wanted by Bangladesh for war crimes trials:

This cable sent from Islamabad on May 17, 1974, reveals that after the Bangladesh-India-Pakistan agreement signed on April 9, 1974, India returned the last Pakistani prisoners of war   from India, including 195 prisoners originally wanted by Bangladesh for war crimes trials. “Bhutto and Minstate Aziz Ahmed have hailed the April 9 agreement as a major move toward a durable peace with India, but the continuing drumfire of anti-India comment in the media reflects the strong emotional suspicion of India still prevalent here,” the cable reads. The cable adds that even in the top leadership in the Pakistani government, there is “exasperation” over what they perceived as India’s continuous efforts to hamper Pakistan from obtaining military supplies. While the U.S.  diplomat foretold a thawing of relations between the two countries, he said “continuing mutual suspicion” would hinder diplomatic efforts.


France-Presse — Getty Images
Rajiv Gandhi, left, with his mother Indira Gandhi, center, and younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi on March 21, 1977.
Indira Gandhi said she was proud that she “resisted pressures to destroy Pakistan in 1971″


In an analysis of India-Pakistan relations after the 1971 war, a cable sent from the U.S.  Department of State says that Indira Gandhi felt that she showed restraint during the war. “Mrs. Gandhi was proud, and we believe sincere, in explaining she resisted pressures to destroy Pakistan in 1971,” reads this cable, dated March 1, 1974. “We believe that she wants détente on the subcontinent and she feels she made concessions at Simla to achieve this. She also insists – plausibly we think – that further disintegration of Pakistan would not be in India’s interest.”  The cable says that while Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh improves the short-term prospects for better India-Pakistan relations, there is continued suspicion on both sides. The document argues that while India feels that Pakistan must “adjust to Indian power and influence” there is little likelihood of that happening in the near future.

The Indian takeover of Sikkim in 1973 might have been intended to send a message to Nepal and Bhutan:

This cable sent on April 25, 1973, from New Delhi the U.S. ambassador relays the impressions and opinions of the then Times of India correspondent Sivdas Banerjee. He says that Mr. Banerjee had received his information from a senior West Bengal Congress minister who had been briefed by a high-level official from the Ministry of External Affairs. “There was an important and deliberate message to Nepal and Bhutan in prompt Indian action in Sikkim,” reads the cable.

The cable adds that according to Mr. Banerjee’s source in the Ministry of External Affairs, Nepal and Bhutan had been reluctant to cooperate with India on defense matters and “Nepal’s position in particular had irked Mrs. Gandhi during her recent visit there and she was sending direct message to King Birendra.”

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/kissinger-cables-offer-window-into-indian-politics-of-the-1970s/

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Re: ‘Kissinger Cables’ Offer Window Into Indian Politics of the 1970s
« Reply #1 on: April 09, 2013, 11:21:13 AM »
This is how Indian 'paid media' reacts to the cable:

Early on the morning of September 21, 1965, six English Electric Canberra bombers flew low over Sindh, hugging the parched earth on a near-impossible mission to knock out Pakistan’s critical radar station at Badin. Badin’s monitored air traffic over Bhuj, Uttarlai, Jamnagar and Jaisalmer, crippling India’s offensive capabilities. Not surprisingly, the radar station was ferociously defended on the ground. The Indian Air Force pilots also faced lethal adversaries in the air. Pakistan was operating F-104A interceptors, the only type on both sides equipped with a radar, and F-86F jets armed with AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles. Incredibly, the raid succeeded.

Five years after the Badin raid, the IAF set about searching for a deep penetration strike aircraft to replace its ageing Canberra fleet—an aircraft that could hit targets deep inside Pakistan, until then sheltered by distance, without exposing its pilots to the incredible risks they faced.

Leaked United States diplomatic cables, purporting to show Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi acted as an “entrepreneur” or middleman for Swedish manufacturer Saab, have now sparked off a furious debate about how that critical aircraft acquisition was actually conducted.  The cables also record speculation that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, was fronting for the BAC-111—a commercial jet then competing for a lucrative Indian Airlines contract.

For all the media fuss, though close reading of the cables shows they don’t actually tell us that much. Saab lost out on the combat jet deal, and the BAC-111 to the Boeing 737. There is lots of smoke, but no fire—not even, so to speak, the hint of a cigar.

Are the allegations against Gandhi just gossip? Reuters
The Saab cables consist of the kind of gossip and innuendo that swirls around all big business deals.  In the October 1975 cable naming Rajiv Gandhi, for example, a Swedish informant tells the United States embassy that the “decision would be between Mirage and Viggen”. The very next month, though, in November, 1975, a British high commission official told his United States counterparts that “the British Jaguar is still very much in running”.  In January, 1976, Defence Minister Bansi Lal discussed terms and delivery schedules with British high commissioner Michael Walker. Though Lal underlined the French were still in the running, he did not mention Saab. Now, according to the United States embassy, the Swedes were “the least optimistic”.

Washington decided in August, 1976, it would not allow Saab to sell to India, objecting to Sweden handing over the “advanced United States technology represented in the Viggen’s aerodynamic design, engine and flying controls, navigation system, electronic components and weapons systems”. It’s clear from the January, 1976, cable, though, it’s clear Saab was already pretty much out of the race by then.

The cables—which were actually been declassified since 2006, as their right-hand columns record, and have since been available on microfilm—also do not assert that Rajiv Gandhi was fronting for Saab.

In one cable, a Swedish diplomat tells the United States mission in New Delhi that that the “main Indian negotiator” was “Mrs. Gandhi’s ol[d]er son, Rajiv Gandhi”. Swedish diplomats, the cable records, “understand the importance of family influences in the final decision”. Based on this information, the cable’s author observed that this was the first time the United States embassy had heard of Rajiv Gandhi acting as an “entrepreneur”. “We would”, it adds “have thought a transport pilot [is] not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plan, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification”.

These remarks are editorial comments on information—snark, if you wish. They demonstrate an arguably prescient contempt for Rajiv Gandhi’s capabilities and probity, but nothing more.

France, the United States and Sweden all believed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her sons would make the final decision on the contract—not the Indian Air Force. New Delhi-based French diplomats asserted Indira Gandhi would make the decision on “polio cal [political?] grounds”. For France, this was good news: a long-standing Indian ally, it was seen by New Delhi as relatively independent of the United States. It should also have been good news for the Swedes if they had Rajiv Gandhi behind them—but the United States embassy’s Swedish informant “expressed irritation at the way Mrs Gandhi is personally dominating the negotiations”.

The totality of the cables, though, show the British assessment was the closest to the truth: the IAF was calling the shots. Walker, for one, was certain that the Jaguar was “the favourite of the IAF”.

Perhaps, like any shrewd negotiator, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, fed competitors with rumours about their prospects, inducing them to better their bids.  Her strategy, if that was it, worked.

To understand the IAF’s thinking, context is key. The race for a Canberra replacement had begun in 1970, when the Soviet Union offered India the Tupelov-22—a medium-range supersonic bomber which had just entered service in 1962. The aircraft was capable of carrying up to 9,000 kilograms of ordnance almost 5,000 kilometres at speeds of up Mach 1.42. The Indian Air Force had earlier flown the Tu-22’s non-supersonic predecessor, the Tu16, using it as a modified VIP transport for Indira Gandhi.  Her relationship with the Soviet Union was excellent; the Soviet Union, moreover, accepted rupee payment.  In 1971, though, air-marshal Shivdev Singh visited Moscow to study the Tu-22—and found it wanting.

Not all in the government were happy with this call—but the air force judgment proved correct. The Tu-22 suffered from a number of technical problems, as well as serviceability issues. More than 70 of the 311 Tu-22’s produced crashed.

The war of 1971 hammered home the need to move forward, and fast: the Canberras, though excellent for their time, were too exposed.  From 1973 to 1976, the air force studied the options.  The gold standard, at the time, was the General Dynamics F-111, but India’s fraught relationship with the United States meant that option was closed.  With the Tu-22 out of the race, three combat jets were left in contention—the SEPECAT Jaguar, the Saab Viggen, and the Dassault Mirage F1.

Each aircraft had advantages. The F1 had better air defence capabilities—something appreciated by Canberra pilots, who had been forced to fly hugging the ground at night to avoid Pakistani missiles. The Saab was the first aircraft to incorporate both afterburners and thrust-reversers. From the air force point of view, says retired Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak, the Jaguar was however the top pick. Its two engines, like the Canberra, gave it range and payload advantages.

Three successive IAF chiefs—Om Prakash Mehra from 1973 to 1976, Hrushikesh Moolgavkar on 1976 to 1978, and IH Latif, from 1978 t0 1981—all backed the Jaguar. Their pressure proved decisive. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who came to power in 1977, gave the final go-ahead  In February 1979, a team visited the United Kingdom to firm-up the deal.  The United Kingdom agreed to hold back equipping its own combat squadrons to meet India’s needs. Eighteen Royal Air Force Jaguars were loaned to the Indian Air Force, until production aircraft came off the assembly lines.  The first two loaned aircraft became operational on July 27, 1979.

In 1980, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi briefly threatened to review the deal, amidst swirling rumours that Prime Minister Desai’s son, Kanti Desai, had received kickbacks. She never went through with the threat, though.

So what do the cables tell us? For one, the New Delhi of the mid-1970s was a lot like New Delhi today: connections, or the appearance of connections, mattered.  They also tell us, though, that connections didn’t always swing things. Saab didn’t ever have a real chance of winning the deep penetration strike aircraft contract, and the Boeing 737 sailed through into the Indian Airlines fleet. It is entirely possible any of the winners would have passed on kickbacks to the ruling party—leaving it free to purchase the best equipment on offer.

There is one important thing, though, that the fallout from the release of the cables shows: how little evidence it now takes to persuade Indians that wrong-doing has occurred.  The media nudge-nudge reporting must get blame for this frenzy. However, Prime Ministers  from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh must share the bigger part of the blame for engendering this culture of suspicion.

http://www.firstpost.com/india/wikileaks-cables-real-evidence-or-just-gossip-of-the-times-691587.html

What happened, happened and could not have happened any other way