It is a sad commentary on the state of strategic thinking in India that in all the discourse in parliament and outside about Jaswant Singh’s new book, A Call to Honour, the author’s message was lost, and instead, the messenger became the issue. It is one of New Delhi’s most open secrets that espionage goes on in the city all the time. But only a very small group of people in the capital knows how pervasive this problem is, how widespread are the tentacles of New Delhi’s spying networks or how vulnerable are those in the city who have any information of value.
If the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, wants to get a tutorial on spying in the capital, he only has to shout from his office: a few rooms down the corridor in South Block sits his national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, a spymaster who dedicated much of his professional life to the fine art of intelligence-gathering. The Intelligence Bureau, which he once headed, is often unfairly at the receiving end of criticism about its capacity, its judgement and its network. Actually, the IB has a fairly good idea of who is doing what in Delhi’s expatriate and diplomatic community.
The Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat is expected to operate abroad, but this agency too keeps tabs on what constitutes a logical extension in the capital of its overseas mandate and has frequently struck pay dirt. And yet, why does India repeatedly experience intelligence failures, including some of massive proportions like the one hinted at in Jaswant Singh’s book' And why do India’s intelligence agencies have a bad name'
The answer lies in the same cavalier attitude that the nation’s leaders (irrespective of party affiliation), its opinion-makers and many of its strategic thinkers displayed during the controversy about Jaswant Singh’s book. Over the years, those in authority at the Centre and in the states have steadily ignored rules and guidelines concerning their interaction with foreigners and foreign diplomats in the country. There was a time when chief ministers of states would not meet ambassadors resident in India unless the ministry of external affairs gave “political clearance” for such meetings. And appointments for these ambassadors with members of the Union cabinet or secretaries to the government of India had to be arranged through the MEA.
Such systems were put in place for a reason: national security. In many countries around the world, such norms are strictly enforced even today. In many capitals, where Indian ambassadors are accredited, their secretaries cannot just call up and directly fix an appointment with, say, the minister of labour or the finance secretary of the host country. They have to route their requests for such appointments through the foreign ministries in those capitals.
In India, on the other hand, not only resident ambassadors or their deputy chiefs of mission, but even officials as junior as third secretaries in embassies in New Delhi and in consulates in the three metros are increasingly welcomed with open doors without the MEA even being informed about such meetings. Many third secretaries in Chanakyapuri dealing with education and culture say they are particularly sought after because they have scholarships for higher education abroad to offer to Indian boys and girls, children of bureaucrats and ministers.
Not all of these foreign envoys are diplomats in the conventional sense: many of them are undercover agents. Two successive Israeli ambassadors in India in the years soon after New Delhi and Tel Aviv established full diplomatic relations used to openly say that they were from the intelligence agencies, not from the foreign ministry. One of them knew every single spoken Arab dialect and made it his mission in India to befriend at least one Indian Muslim family every month.
When he was external affairs minister, Natwar Singh issued an order to return to the old practice. He insisted that ambassadors in New Delhi could meet Union ministers and government secretaries only after their meetings were cleared by South Block and through appointments that were routed through the MEA. The problem with his ‘fatwa’ was that it was motivated by his desire to prevent the petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, from stealing the MEA’s thunder. Aiyar’s oil diplomacy caught the imagination of the world much more than anything the external affairs minister could initiate in his own ministry.
During the Cold War, British diplomats posted in key countries — and those at the Foreign Office in many instances — were required to provide written accounts to their bosses of any meetings with foreigners within 48 hours of those taking place. India has no requirement that is remotely similar. When there are no carefully drafted rules to check espionage, when the few rules that are there are observed more in their breach, is it any wonder that moles get planted all the way, right into the prime minister’s office' Forget P.V. Narasimha Rao’s PMO, which is now the subject of a furious debate following Jaswant Singh’s book. Recall Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO, where the principal secretary, P.C. Alexander had to resign because of a high-profile spy scandal.
When the history of India’s transformation into a global power is written, the 1998 nuclear tests will be remembered not only as the starting point of that metamorphosis, but also for the secrecy under which they were conducted. That secrecy, which prevented the Americans from getting even a whiff that the tests were imminent, prompted hearings on Capitol Hill and a “blue ribbon” enquiry within the CIA. Such secrecy was possible because the team in charge of Pokhran II was so new that those in New Delhi who were engaged in espionage did not have the time to try to infiltrate the new dispensation under the Bharatiya Janata Party. Those in charge under Atal Bihari Vajpayee were so new to government that they could think with a degree of freshness that produced innovation.
Because Indian politicians traditionally show an absolute lack of interest in intelligence matters, and their lack of concern for intelligence failures, intelligence agencies too have become lackadaisical in the use of privileged information in the best national interest. Instead, they often use information gathered through intelligence for settling personal scores and fighting turf wars.
About 15 years ago, Indian intelligence managed to break the cypher code of a European government, used for transmitting messages from its mission in New Delhi to its headquarters. As a result, at least one cypher telegram surfaced, in which a joint secretary in the MEA was sharing highly classified information with diplomats at this particular mission in Chanakyapuri. The chief of RAW brought this to the attention of the then foreign secretary. This columnist has seen the correspondence between the two men. But instead of taking action on the intelligence, the RAW chief and the foreign secretary struck a deal favourable to the former, and the joint secretary was merely moved out of his post and shortly afterwards sent out as ambassador. Having witnessed many similar instances during this columnist’s coverage of government, it is easy to see that Jaswant Singh’s references to spying at the highest levels in the Indian government could have been the starting point of a debate on national security and the languishing efforts to reform India’s intelligence agencies. Instead, they ended up as cannon fodder for polarizing battles across the political divide.