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Day before hanging, a tip to US

Washington, Nov. 24: The Prime Minister and the UPA’s chairperson may have been unaware of Ajmal Kasab’s imminent hanging to death last Wednesday, if the Union home minister is to be believed. But Sushil Kumar Shinde’s self-touted “police background” did not come in the way of the “world’s policeman” being told ahead of the death sentence on the Pakistani terrorist being carried out.

America’s national security adviser Tom Donilon was alerted about Kasab’s hanging during a 90-minute meeting with his Indian counterpart Shivshankar Menon in Phnom Penh which took place a day before the lone surviving gunman from the Mumbai carnage was taken to the gallows, sources here said.

Asked if India had informed the US in advance of Kasab’s hanging, Mark Toner, the state department’s deputy spokesperson, chose his words carefully. “I am not aware that we would have been informed prior to this execution.”

He then hastened to add that “we have said before that we welcome steps toward justice in these — in the Mumbai attacks. We have said many times before that we want to see the terrorists behind these attacks brought to justice. My understanding is that he (Kasab) received due process in a full and transparent trial and the sentence was carried out.”

Toner is clinically correct in the profession in which he is schooled: diplomacy. A source familiar with the Menon-Donilon talks said the Indian national security adviser did not tell his US counterpart in so many words that Kasab would be hanged at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time.

Menon, who went to school in Tibet, spent his childhood in China and made his reputation as a diplomat during his long years as a Sinologist, is a master of the opaque and is known to pepper his interactions with his foreign interlocutors with riddles and hints when needed.

In this instance, it is understood that he talked to Donilon about the consequences of the due process of justice taking its course in the Mumbai terrorist attacks and drew a contrast with Pakistan’s actions on this issue. But that was enough for Donilon to grasp what was cooking in the case.

President Barack Obama’s national security adviser has long memories of one of the most challenging times in Indo-US relations when Warren M. Christopher was secretary of state and Donilon his chief of staff.

Flare-ups in Bill Clinton’s administration at that time over India, mostly ignited by Robin Raphel, the then President’s friend from his university days in England, who was brought in as the assistant secretary of state in the newly created South Asia bureau, are legendary.

More than once, it was Donilon who was called upon to put out the fire from skirmishes that pitted his own successor in the secretary of state’s office, Kenneth Brill, opposite Raphel, who was widely perceived as an India-hater. Brill, then charge d’affaires at the US embassy in New Delhi, was acknowledged as having a feel for India.

Donilon told a White House colleague recently that he recalled the “open mike” on the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi where Jimmy Carter told his secretary of state of his intention to write a stiff letter to then Prime Minister Morarji Desai on India’s nuclear options, unaware that the entire audience could hear what the visiting US President had said. Donilon was first an intern and later was put on the staff of Carter’s White House after he graduated from Catholic University in Rhode Island.

This time round, the Americans appreciated Menon’s tip-off about Kasab in Phnom Penh. Six American citizens were killed in the Mumbai terrorist attack, the anniversary of which falls on Monday and the execution in Yerwada Central Jail in Pune brought what Americans like to call “closure” to the personal tragedies of their families.

Sources in the American national security establishment believe Shinde excluded on purpose Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi from among those who had prior knowledge of Kasab’s hanging, mindful of the possible consequences of the government’s action.

In the long run, India is bracing for a fallout from the execution of the terrorist, who is a hero to global jihadis. How soon some retaliation will occur depends on what the ruthless sleuths in the Inter-Services Intelligence in Rawalpindi decide on whether and how to exploit the incident for advancing their perennial plots against India.

It is also possible that rogue elements in the ISI who have been notorious for their lone wolf actions in recent years may decide to harness the disaffection from Kasab’s hanging at some point. When that happens, Shinde wants to insulate the Prime Minister and the UPA chairperson from the consequences. That he has taken upon himself the sole responsibility for the hanging is seen here as an act of deliberation unlike the popular view in India that it was an example of the home minister’s foot going into his mouth.

Menon and Donilon discussed Pakistan at length. Although Kasab was tangential to this conversation, he was the unseen elephant in the room. If Pakistan eventually decides to exploit the death sentence on their unacknowledged citizen, New Delhi will only have Washington to turn to for reining in Rawalpindi.

In the past, the most effective channel for such actions has been the respective offices of the national security advisers in both capitals. When M.K. Narayanan was Menon’s predecessor, his personal equation with Stephen Hadley, Donilon’s predecessor twice removed, worked wonders in the bilateral relationship.

It is one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that the Indo-US nuclear deal would not have come about in its present form had it not been for the work jointly done between Narayanan and Hadley away from the spotlight.

Indeed, ever since India created the post of a national security adviser, the ministry of external affairs has often been reduced to a mere post office or a messenger with substantive work being carried out by the national security advisers.

New Delhi reckons that although Washington’s influence in Islamabad has diminished compared with the Pervez Musharraf era, it will be on the rise in Obama’s second term in the White House, especially as the deadline for US withdrawal from Afghanistan nears.

The substance of Menon’s 90-minute meeting in Phnom Penh with Donilon needs to be weighed in that context.


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