The Cable

India’s stealth lobbying against Holbrooke’s brief

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — flanked by President Obama — introduced Richard Holbrooke as the formidable new U.S. envoy to South Asia at a State Department ceremony on Thursday, India was noticeably absent from his title. Holbrooke, the veteran negotiator of the Dayton accords and sharp-elbowed foreign policy hand who has long advised ...


When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — flanked by President Obama — introduced Richard Holbrooke as the formidable new U.S. envoy to South Asia at a State Department ceremony on Thursday, India was noticeably absent from his title.

Holbrooke, the veteran negotiator of the Dayton accords and sharp-elbowed foreign policy hand who has long advised Clinton, was officially named “special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan” in what was meant to be one of the signature foreign policy acts of Obama’s first week in office.

But the omission of India from his title, and from Clinton’s official remarks introducing the new diplomatic push in the region was no accident — not to mention a sharp departure from Obama’s own previously stated approach of engaging India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a regional dialogue. Multiple sources told The Cable that India vigorously — and successfully — lobbied the Obama transition team to make sure that neither India nor Kashmir was included in Holbrooke’s official brief.

“When the Indian government learned Holbrooke was going to do [Pakistan]-India, they swung into action and lobbied to have India excluded from his purview,” relayed one source. “And they succeeded. Holbrooke’s account officially does not include India.”

To many Washington South Asia experts, the decision to not include India or Kashmir in the official Terms of Reference of Holbrooke’s mandate was not just appropriate, but absolutely necessary. Given India’s fierce, decades-long resistance to any internationalization of the Kashmir dispute, to have done so would have been a non-starter for India, and guaranteed failure before the envoy mission had begun, several suggested.

“Leaving India out of the title actually opens up [Holbrooke’s] freedom to talk to them,” argued Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who served until December as a consultant for a lobbying firm, BGR, retained by the Indian Government.

But to others — including Obama himself, who proposed a special envoy to deal with Kashmir during the campaign — the region’s security challenges cannot be solved without including India. Obama told Time‘s Joe Klein, that working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve their Kashmir conflict would be a critical task for his administration’s efforts to try to counter growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically,” Obama told Klein. “But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? … I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.” Obama also suggested in the interview that he had discussed the special envoy idea with former President Bill Clinton.

Whatever the case, the evidence that India was able to successfully lobby the Obama transition in the weeks before it took office to ensure Holbrooke’s mission left them and Kashmir out is testament to both the sensitivity of the issue to India as well as the prowess and sophistication of its Washington political and lobbying operation.

“The Indians freaked out at talk of Bill Clinton being an envoy to Kashmir,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The reason they were so worried is they don’t want their activities in Kashmir to be equated with what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan.”

“They [India] are the big fish [in the region],” Markey added. “They don’t want to be grouped with the ‘problem children’ in the region, on Kashmir, on nuclear issues. They have a fairly effective lobbying machine. They have taken a lot of notes on the Israel model, and they have gotten better. But you don’t want to overstate it. Some of the lobbying effort is obvious, done through companies, but a lot of it is direct government to government contact, people talking to each other. The Indian government and those around the Indian government made clear through a variety of channels because of the Clinton rumors and they came out to quickly shoot that down.”

Once Holbrooke’s name was floated, the Indian lobbying campaign became even more intense. “The Indians do not like Holbrooke because he has been very good on Pakistan… and has a very good feel for the place” said one former U.S. official on condition of anonymity. “The Indians have this town down.”

Initially, when Obama’s plans for a corps of special envoys became public after the election, The Cable was told, the idea was for a senior diplomat to tackle the Kashmir dispute as part of the South Asia envoy portfolio and whose mandate would include India. But soon after the election and Holbrooke’s name began to appear, the Indians approached key transition officials to make clear that while they could not affect what the new administration did with respect to envoys, that they would expect no mediation on the Kashmir issue.

“I have suggested to others, though not directly to Dick [Holbrooke], that his title should not/not include India, precisely so that he would be freer to work with them,” Zelikow said. “If you understand Indian politics, this paradox makes sense.”

“I did nothing for the [Government of India] on this,” Zelikow added. The Indian government “talked directly to folks on the  [Obama] transition team and I heard about it from my Indian friends. I think Holbrooke needs to talk to the Indians. But they are trying, understandably, to break out of being in a  hyphenated relationship with America (i.e., comprehended  on a mental map called India-Pakistan).”

Other sources said India’s hired lobbyists were deployed to shape the contours of the U.S. diplomatic mission. According to lobbying records filed with the Department of Justice, since 2005, the government of India has paid BGR about $2.5 million. BGR officials who currently work on the Indian account, who according to lobbying records include former Sen. Chuck Hagel aide Andrew Parasiliti, former U.S. State Department counterproliferation official Stephen Rademaker, former Bush I and Reagan era White House aide and BGR partner Ed Rogers, and former House Foreign Affairs committee staffer Walker Roberts, did not respond to messages left Friday by Foreign Policy. Former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, who previously served as a lobbyist for India, left BGR in 2008 for the Rand Corporation. In addition, the Indian embassy in Washington has paid lobbying firm Patton Boggs $291,665 under a six-month contract that took effect Aug. 18, according to lobbying records.

“BGR has been a registered lobbyist for the Indian government since 2005,” noted one Senate staffer on condition of anonymity. “The Indian government retained BGR for the primary purpose of pushing through the Congress the civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and India – hence the strategic hires of Bob Blackwill, the former U.S. Ambassador to India, and Walker Roberts, a senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee responsible for vetting past such agreements. BGR continues to actively lobby on behalf of the Indian government – their lobbyists sought to influence a recent Senate resolution on the Mumbai attacks. So I would be very surprised if BGR were NOT involved here.”

(For its part, Pakistan has spent about $1,175,000, on lobbying during the past year, including on trade issues. That includes Dewey and LeBoeuf’s work for the Ministry of Commerce, and Locke Lord’s work for the Embassy of Pakistan and the Pakistan International Airlines Corp, according to lobbying records.)

It’s not clear to experts and officials interviewed exactly who in the Obama transition team was contacted as part of the Indian lobbying effort. The White House did not respond to queries.

Asked about the decision to exclude India from the special envoy’s official mandate, former NSC and CIA official Bruce Riedel, who served as the senior lead of the team advising the Obama campaign on South Asian issues, said by e-mail, “When Senator Clinton originally proposed the envoy idea in her campaign it was only for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He didn’t respond to a further query questioning why Clinton’s campaign comments on the issue mattered as much as Obama’s, since, obviously, it was Obama who won the presidency and ultimately appointed her to carry out his foreign policy as the Obama administration’s top diplomat.

UPDATE: An administration official responded that the transition met with no foreign governments and no representatives of foreign governments, pursuant to a policy laid out by the then President-Elect. He further said that it was never the intent for the South Asian envoy portfolio to include an Indian role.

UPDATE II: See related follow-up piece, “India’s special envoy anxiety,” here.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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