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SCOTCH FOR SECRETS
- Indian spy scares and the Lone Superpower

On returning to London from Delhi, one of the two British journalists covering the Congress's 1968 split who were refused government accreditation told me that the official snub meant nothing in professional or personal terms. The same high dignitaries who would not let them into formal press conferences were only too glad to invite them home for a drink and tell them all they had said on record and more.

Americans probably enjoy even more privileged access. Not because of current strategic exchanges, but because the historical deference to whites is also a genuflection to wealth and power. Though Jaswant Singh's sensitive account of relations with the Lone Superpower does not mention this chink in India's emotional armour, our people give away a lot for very little, sometimes for only a pat on the back from the sahib. The 'scotch for secrets' case when six officials were convicted for supplying classified information to the Central Intelligence Agency was frivolous compared to the treason of Britain's Cambridge spies.

The complex bears remembering when an indulgent man like Manmohan Singh is moved to uncharacteristic harshness about the reference, in A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, to a mole in P.V. Narasimha Rao's office. But before discussing hypotheses that seem as unbelievable as the prime minister's bluntness, it must be noted that the letter Jaswant prints on page 126 is hardly earth-shattering. Even if it was not a plant, it would not have imperilled security. That might excuse the author's obvious dereliction of duty in not at once informing the appropriate authorities.

Two explanations might be considered. First, in the atmosphere of spin rather than substance in which Delhi's glitterati thrives, the red herring of a mole could be a ploy to excite public curiosity and boost sales. Already, A Call to Honour is a best-seller. Second, the spy scare may have been concocted for political propaganda.

Jaswant corroborates my disclosure four years ago, in Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, that before relinquishing office Narasimha Rao asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to conduct the nuclear test he had failed to carry out. But he does not mention the conviction in some Bharatiya Janata Party circles, which Waiting for America also recorded on the basis of interviews with party personnel, that the US embassy got wind of the message and had a hand in organizing the Lok Sabha vote 13 days later to topple Vajpayee. What could be more plausible and politically self-serving than to invoke a mole in the outgoing Congress prime minister's office who spilt the beans'

One would like to exonerate Jaswant of suspicion on both counts. Casting the world in his own impeccable image, he does not actually point a finger at anyone. But certain anomalies must be noted. The letter's typically Indian officialese, suggesting that the supposed mole himself wrote it, is inconsistent with the claim that it was sent to an American senator. Indian officials, even PMO functionaries, do not usually communicate with senators, certainly not with senators with personal access to the president (Bill Clinton). Nor would an Indian so authoritatively instruct the senator what to tell/show and what not to tell/show the president. Finally, anyone who reads spy fiction knows that moles have a low-profile controller nearby to whom alone they report.

Then I read in a newspaper (though without any confirmation in the text) that the letter's author was not a PMO man but from Delhi's American embassy. That made sense at one level since many American consular and diplomatic officials do double up as CIA representatives (read John D. Smith or Duane R. Dewey). This one may have been the mole's controller. It could also explain the writer's confident tone in addressing the senator and apparent familiarity with the president. As for the stilted language, perhaps the answer lies in Jaswant's admission that he had 'greatly abridged' the original. But why would an embassy official/controller convey his information to a politician and not his own executive superiors' Senators are not within the administration's operational loop. They do not officiate for the CIA.

If the letter is genuine, the conundrum might be more explicable in terms of the social round where loose talk is all too common. Richard Celeste, who had many unlikely Indian contacts from his first stint (1963-67) as Chester Bowles's special assistant, might, for instance, have picked up interesting tidbits from a garrulous friend in the PMO when he became ambassador in 1997 and forwarded them to a friend who was also a senator. Of course, Celeste is not the culprit since he did not move into Roosevelt House until two years after the letter episode. Also, he would have communicated directly and privately with the White House.

Jaswant does acknowledge we are a nation of blabbers when he praises Brajesh Mishra for ensuring secrecy for Pokhran II. (Actually, this had happened before. Indians also surprised themselves on May 18, 1974, when J.R.D. Tata and Lee Kuan Yew, chatting in Singapore, heard of Pokhran I. Lee was astonished and disapproving. As a member of the atomic energy commission, Tata was even more surprised. 'He could not believe that such a secret had been so well kept by the government of India.') What Jaswant does not mention is that while the social circuit of all capitals allows information-gathering, leaks are probably easier in 'casual, laid-back, chaotic' and porous Delhi, and easiest of all when it comes to a land that is the public nightmare and private dream of so many Indians.

The 'dissonance between America's words and its actions' and its 'reluctance to accept (India) as a responsible member of the international community' that Jaswant realistically admits ' despite his long and gratifying relationship with Strobe Talbott ' is part of the reason for the uneasy relationship. But no analysis can ignore the effects of the posturing that compounds boastful loquacity. William B. Saxbe, ambassador in the Seventies, mused, 'When I call on cabinet ministers, the president, or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the United States and how well they're doing and how well they like things. The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the United States as a totally different kind of country.'

This is a national, not party, characteristic. When a communist mayor of Calcutta wanted to twin his city with San Francisco, the surprised American consul-general reminded him that Odessa already enjoyed that honour. 'Yes, but my son is in California!' was the mayor's bland reply. He wanted a politically correct reason to holiday in the US at the Bengal taxpayer's expense. How could Americans take seriously the moralizing of a minister whose son was angling for a green card' Or the strictures of a diplomat who pulled every string to extend his Washington posting'

The only way of countering the complex is to make India indispensable to the US. If all politics is local, as Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, said, foreign policy is most so. Which is why for all Nehru's spectacular global forays, India was nowhere on the world map. The strategic imperatives of strong Indo-US ties and for deciding whether India is America's subordinate or equal ally depend on India's economic performance, as the Carnegie Foundation's Ashley Tellis reiterated recently. 'If India sustains an economic growth in capacity to (the) US, it would turn as an equal ally. But if it's economy falters its quest for equality falters. We cannot decide India's status as (the) US has only a marginal role in India emerging as a great power.'

Domestic strength matters far more than nuclear treaties or elaborate 'harmonization' talks. Meanwhile, periodic spy scares ' Morarji Desai, Rattan Sehgal, 'scotch for secrets' and now this ' only betray a lack of gravitas at the top.

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