Washington, July 22: In the end, it was a case of spy vs. spy.
If M.K. Narayanan, with his 37 years of intelligence work for the Indian government and a further 15 years of advisory role on clandestine activity since his retirement had not met Robert Gates at the Pentagon on July 16, the 123 Agreement to operationalise the Indo-US nuclear deal may have spilled over into another round of negotiations, maybe next month in New Delhi.
Gates, now America’s defence secretary, and Narayanan, now national security adviser, have had parallel lives in the shadowy intelligence worlds of their respective countries.
Gates is the only career officer in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency to have risen from an entry-level operative to CIA director. But the two men also had a 17 year-old matter to settle between them.
So they were looking forward to last week’s meeting to smooth things over and take matters, which were beyond the nuclear deal, forward.
Few people now remember that when Gates arrived in New Delhi in May 1990 from Islamabad as America’s ‘policeman’ to stop what Washington thought was an imminent nuclear war in South Asia, Narayanan was right at the top of the Indian intelligence set up.
He had been chief of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) from 1987 to 1990, then headed the Joint Intelligence Committee and again became IB chief in 1991 till his retirement in 1992.
India held the 1990 Gates mission to South Asia — and Washington’s subsequent claim that it averted a nuclear holocaust as a result of that mission — in utter contempt then and continues to do so till this day. But neither America’s intelligence community nor its strategic community has been able to live down the reality that India and Pakistan have managed their nuclear balance between them and on their own.
So on Monday, Narayanan appropriately went to the strategic community in Washington within 40 minutes of his arrival here for his first interaction with them since becoming national security adviser three years ago.
For two full hours, he gave them his assessment of the security dimensions in India’s neighbourhood and listened to their response that obviously included the nuclear-armed status on India and Pakistan.
Then he went to see Gates. There was no rancour. At that meeting, according to multiple accounts, the two men built a bond that is only shared by men and women from the cloak and dagger world of spymasters. Bygones were bygones.
Gates was instrumental in arranging the crucial meeting between US vice president Dick Cheney and Narayanan on Thursday, which sent an unmistakable political signal to the American officials connected with the nuclear deal that their mandate was to finalise the 123 Agreement, not to block it further.
Cheney and Gates go back a long time. At the time of his 1990 mission to Islamabad and New Delhi, Gates was deputy national security adviser in father Bush’s White House and Cheney was doing Gates’ current job.
Gates briefed Cheney soon after he had met Narayanan, giving the vice president a comprehensive account of Narayanan’s presentation at the Pentagon meeting. Obviously, the defence secretary had been impressed and the account by Gates made Cheney curious enough to want to know more.
So, when Cheney met the Indian national security adviser, he quickly gave the green signal for the nuclear deal and proceeded to carve up the world between India and the US in his pet neo-conservative fantasy.
India was primarily interested in getting the 123 Agreement past the roadblocks which have held it up for more than a year. But Cheney was interested in what India and the US could do together in Asia with other democracies, such as Japan and Australia and in the volatile areas of the world’s energy supplies along with “good Muslims” who are in his pocket. Naturally, that excludes the Iranians.
Narayanan, it was obvious to the Americans, brought with him the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but always understated it, according to US sources.
They said the deference shown by foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon to his counterpart in the department of atomic energy, Anil Kakodkar, Menon’s senior by many years, also showed that the Indian team had come with the authority and the willingness to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.
That made it incumbent on the US to rise to occasion. And in the end they did.