India Survives Its Week of Leaks

More cables from WikiLeaks this week shifted India's lively political scene into the chaotic gear. Allegations of bribery by the government led to disruption of the parliament's regular sessions and calls for the resignation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. On Friday, Home Minister P. Chidambaram also faced calls to step down for telling a U.S. envoy that the India would progress faster if it comprised only of its southern and western states.

The cables sent from U.S. officials in India to the State Department, published by The Hindu, an English-language daily, cover several domestic as well as foreign policy matters, and more are on the way.

One cable suggests that the ruling Congress party paid lawmakers for their votes to get the Indo-US Nuclear Deal passed. Singh said that the cables were not authentic but Julian Assange, WikiLeaks chief, said that the prime minister was misleading Indians.

Another cable suggested that India voted against a U.N. resolution, introduced by Cuba, condemning the mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, to please the Americans for a position in the Security Council for the future. India's eagerness to please the U.S. and more corruption are the two main issues, which have emerged from the jungle of cables.

Like the U.S., the whistleblower organization has its fans and critics in India. But its impact has already been more jarring, which has led to questions about whether it has the potential of creating real change.

There has also been talk of duplicating a WikiLeaks operation nationally to fight corruption, which is so rampant, that some have suggested that a Middle East-styled uprising is needed to tackle it.

The recent telecom corruption case, for instance, cost the Indian treasury $40 billion. A report by the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity said that at least $462 billion was illegally transferred overseas from India between 1948 and 2008.

Still, the WikiLeaks influence in India is different from the West because only a small percentage of India's 1.2 billion people speak English or use the internet. It is entirely possible that WikiLeaks may play a more dramatic than a drastic role.

When it comes to battling corruption, observers say that a combination of widespread popular rebuke cutting across economic and social ranks combined with strengthening of existing mechanisms like the Right to Information Act.

Vipul Mudgal, who raises media awareness about rural issues, says that WikiLeaks can only play a "small part" in bringing about change but it presence makes a strong case for passing a law to protect whistleblowers, which India doesn't have. (Activists using the RTI to expose corruption have been killed).

With the exception of some cables, a lot of the leaked information has also been described as more noise than substance , which is making officials and diplomats wary of talking to each other and to journalists.

"I don't buy that argument," says Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who actively battles corruption and views the current leaks as proof of New Delhi's kowtowing to Washington.

Bhushan says there is no reason why regular political and diplomatic conversations shouldn't be made available to the public. For others, especially those who have been part of the bureaucracy, the perceived influence of the U.S. over India, arising from the cables, is exaggerated. (India did abstain on an important resolution in the Security Council, which authorized use of force in Libya, when the U.S. voted for it).

"Incomplete, selective and often misleading" is how Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, who played a key role in the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal, describes the cables to Outlook, the magazine which exposed media hanky-panky last year.

One cable indicates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked questions about the appointment of Pranab Mukherjee, India's Finance Minister, and to which business groups he belongs to and what interests he intends to serve.

The cable is again viewed as evidence of Washington's influence in India's internal affairs but some say that there needs to be a good reason for making private conversations public--and chatter isn't one of them.

Clinton seems to be doing her job, says Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka, a news magazine known for its undercover exposes in India, which had also approached WikiLeaks to share information.

"There is nothing to expose but there are leaks," she says. "Uploading sacks of letters doesn't serve public interest... there is just so much scandal you can take."

Then, there is the public and media reaction to Assange who is quickly descending into English-speaking landscape. "Gushing" is how one media analyst described the current state of the Indian media, pointing out that more critical thinking of the operation and man behind it, may come with time.

Since WikiLeaks has partnered with one publication, so far, it is likely that the strong streak of competitiveness within the domestic media will lead to greater scrutiny of forthcoming cables, which reveals the real stink in the garbage that needs to be cleaned.

Meanwhile, Assange has told the NDTV news channel that more explosive material is yet to be revealed including material from Pakistan and China, which will be of "interest" to India.