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Behind the snoop summons
- Modi wasn’t important enough to merit NSA attention

The summons to the American embassy in Chanakyapuri from South Block on Wednesday to “raise” the issue of spying against the BJP is only a ripple in a teacup. It is not even a proverbial storm.

A graduated response punctuated with “ifs” and “buts” in Wednesday’s conversation between the two governments is the outcome of deep consideration within the ministry of external affairs of several factors in connection with the episode, howsoever unsavoury.

First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has been ascertained by authoritative sources, was never the target of snooping by the US National Security Agency, or the NSA, because the Americans at that time considered him a marginal player in the main Opposition party, confined to a western Indian state, albeit an important state.

Moreover, Modi was already persona non grata in Washington. Americans suffer from an illusion that once they have condemned someone, he or she is finished: they largely ignore him.

A truthful outcome in the long run may be quite the opposite: in this instance, that was true of Modi and another party caught up in the same snooping saga, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, whose leader Mohammed Morsi was equally ignored by the US until he became President. In a different context, Vladimir Putin was never on the US radar until he became Russian President, much to America’s chagrin.

More important, Modi’s influence on issues that mattered to Washington when the spying was sanctioned in 2010 — be it on foreign policy, defence, strategic vision or economy — was considered marginal. For realists in both governments today, that makes the NSA spying on the BJP, if it did happen, a relic of flawed history.

It may still matter to soldiers of moral outrage against America on all issues, big and small, but for others, India and the BJP have moved on. The lot who control the BJP in 2014 acknowledge that the party which the Americans wanted to snoop on does not exist in its old incarnation any more: the party that was presumably spied on is now an apparition of its past, although in a more robust form.

A lot of intelligence work is pure common sense and it is common sense to assume that L.K. Advani was the primary target four years ago of the approval of US covert action by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. So was Jaswant Singh, who returned to the party in the middle of 2010 after a 10-month expulsion.

Everyone who mattered and came to New Delhi from Washington during that period was advised by the US embassy in New Delhi to meet Advani and/or Singh. On-record conversations between important visitors from America and these two leaders would have enabled the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in India to debrief them — also in a cloak-and-dagger manner — and compare their impressions with those of the agency.

Surely, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, leaders of the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament, would have been targeted but in American eyes, they still represented the second-tier of the party and were caught up in fierce struggle to don the mantle of top leadership. Again, Modi did not figure in any of these calculations.

Sources in the government believe this is a situation that the ruling establishment can live with. Just as the ruling establishment in Washington can live with President Barack Obama’s continuing personal concerns about Modi’s past — exclusively commented on by this paper on Wednesday — and yet do business with him.

If South Block’s outrage had been not been diplomatically expedient, it had two options. One was to threaten to put on hold — not actually cancel, but use for bargaining — Modi’s visit to the White House in September.

The proud nation of Brazil and its singularly remarkable woman President, Dilma Rousseff, did just that in September 2013 unlike Manmohan Singh who actually lobbied and got a visit to Washington — which the White House did not want — despite revelations that the US spied on India and Indians. Dilma’s would have been a rare state visit if she had gone to see Obama, but true to form she chose not to.

The other option would have been to make the Americans pay for their indiscretion, do something that would actually hurt Washington. India has such options but acting on them is always a tough political call.

Last week, responding to popular anger in Germany over allegations that the same American agency accused of snooping on the BJP actually bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, her government cancelled a huge contract with US telecommunication provider Verizon that was to run until 2015.

It is not that New Delhi does not know such actions can hurt America where it matters most and bring it in line. Arab sheikhs in the palaces in Riyadh and Jeddah get away with it merely by threats. The master manipulators in Jerusalem use emotional blackmail to do that.

Presumably, India is averse to such steps because the BJP-led government has concluded that it is making progress in dealing with the Americans through the US Congress even if the Obama administration may be guilty of breach of trust as in the spying episode.

A very knowledgeable source in South Block compared Wednesday’s summons to the Americans to an encounter between former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon when he was a joint secretary dealing with China and Beijing’s then envoy in New Delhi.

The Chinese ambassador had gone to Menon to formally lodge a protest against state elections being held in Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claim as their own. The two men shared exquisite Chinese tea served by Menon’s aides.

They talked cordially in Chinese about many things. Then the ambassador hesitantly took out the protest note and pushed it across the table to Menon, who pushed it back. The process continued two or three times. The note then lay unclaimed exactly in the middle of the table: it was neither accepted nor taken back.

Menon walked down the steps of South Block to see off the ambassador. That memorable Chinese lesson is now being applied to the US ahead of Modi’s visit to Washington.