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India's rendezvous with WikiLeaks

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CODE UNCODE: Seasoned diplomats say that the skill of writing a leak-proof cable is learnt on the job. A good command over English is a prerequisite

Wiki revelations on India have put both the government and the PM in a spot. But how do Indian cables compare with American ones? Are they as detailed, explosive and irreverent? Not by a long stretch. Ours in comparison are relatively staid affairs, more concise and to the point

The political establishment has got its knickers in a twist over revelations contained in the India cables from the Wikileaks stash of secret telegrams sent by US diplomats posted in embassies around the world. The politicos are understandably upset because the contents of some of the cables show them in poor light, exposing as they do the seamy side of Indian politics as well as the indiscretions of political leaders and government policy makers who have been quoted saying things better left unsaid, especially to representatives of other countries.

For diplomats, however, the cables are simply part of a day's work and speak of a job well done. "Our embassies send similar cables, " says former secretary in the ministry of external affairs Rajiv Sikri. "It's our job to report back to headquarters our assessment of events, people, anything that could have a bearing on our national interests. Most diplomats around the world do this level of reporting. "

The cable traffic from Indian embassies in neighbouring nations, for instance, could well contain messages which, if revealed in those countries, would set off a storm much like the one that blew through Parliament in the week gone by. Former high commissioner to Pakistan G Parthasarthi admits as much. "Look, we also monitor very closely elections or a change of government in our neighbourhood. It's no secret that we try to influence developments there. Every country does it in nations that are important to them. So let's not take a holier than thou attitude. As a mature country, we should learn to take these things in our stride. "

Parthasarthi concedes, however, that he was taken aback by the candour displayed by Indian government and political leaders. "I was shocked at how loosely our politicians speak to foreigners. I can tell you that no politician in a major country will speak to an Indian diplomat like that, " he rued.

A red-faced US administration is now scrambling to plug the holes in its international communications system that allowed a private first class in its intelligence office in Afghanistan to get his hands on hundreds of thousands of secret telegrams. Ironically, India's quaint and largely antiquated systems may turn out to be the saviour against similar catastrophic mishandling. "We are far more restrictive in our cable traffic, " says Sikri. "Unlike the Americans, we only send the most important and most urgent messages by cable and they have limited circulation. "

Candid analysis of important personalities, blunt assessments of events and their likely impact on ties with India and detailed reportage of meetings and discussions with contacts are sent in dispatches that reach New Delhi via the diplomatic pouch. The pouch is sealed and handled only by select authorised persons. It may take longer, but the Indian government still believes in the good old-fashioned written report. In fact, diplomats are under strict instructions to be brief and concise in their cables.

The Indian system has four categories of cables: restricted, confidential, secret and top secret. Most cables are addressed to the foreign secretary or one of the other two secretaries in the external affairs ministry but circulated to others in the government as well. The classification of the cable determines the circulation arc. A top secret cable would be seen by a very limited number of people. Although Indian diplomats are not formally trained for it, the art of writing a good cable is very much a part of the initiation process of Foreign Service probationers. "It's not a skill you pick up in a classroom. You have to learn on the job, " says Mansingh. The education comes in short duration postings at missions abroad where they study the dispatches that are sent and sometimes, if the ambassador in the mission is a good teacher, they are even allowed to take a shot at writing some cables themselves.

Of course, it presupposes a good command over English. That's an essential pre-requisite, according to Mansingh. Those who don't have the required proficiency in English undergo an orientation programme during their stint at the Foreign Service Training Institute.

The India cables exposed by Wikileaks are stunning for the breadth and scope of subjects on which US diplomats report. The American consulate in Chennai, for instance, reported on the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu and the role of money power in those polls. "We wouldn't send that kind of detail. We don't have the manpower. The US has huge missions everywhere. We do this kind of reporting only from countries that are important to us, " says Mansingh.

Only a few of the several thousand India cables are out in the public domain. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange warned in a recent TV interview that the really explosive stuff is yet to come. The debate on the India cables will only get more raucous.

Reader's opinion (2)

Vijay MehtaApr 1st, 2011 at 21:23 PM

very good article waiting for the fire work

Nemam Natarajan PasupathyApr 1st, 2011 at 11:00 AM

When USA declassified documents it was authetically reported as to what trasnspired between Nixon and henry Kissinger during 1971 war about India and the PM. Our Govt. may deny the veracity of wikileaks being non authentic and unverified. When they get declassified in future don't be surprised.

 
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