New Delhi, Jan. 18: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is caught up in a raw battle over succession right at the centre of Indiaís most sensitive intelligence apparatus.
Singh is widely believed to have approved a new chief for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Indiaís external spy agency, before he left for the Philippines last week.
But the delay in announcing that decision is attributed to a torrent of protest, behind closed doors, from the countryís vast intelligence community over the choice of Ashok Chaturvedi, who is to succeed P.K. Hormis Tharakan as RAW chief from February 1.
Ashok Chaturvedi is a close relative of cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi. If that does not suggest favouritism in the capitalís incestuous bureaucratic alleys, consider this. Ashok Chaturvedi was positioned for succession to Tharakan by the direct intervention of the cabinet secretary.
Until two years ago, he was overlooked for promotion as special secretary and was superseded by Ambar Sen for the second slot within RAW. But then the cabinet secretary stepped in, and flouting all moral considerations, attended a promotions panel meeting which restored his relativeís seniority within RAW. There was criticism at that time that the cabinet secretary should have recused himself from the committee meeting on promotions citing conflict of interest, but B.K. Chaturvedi turned a deaf ear to such protests.
In the past, Prime Ministers have been honest brokers, playing a role similar to referees, in the choice of heads of intelligence agencies. But in Singhís office it is different because his closest aide, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan, has a special interest in such matters, having been an Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief himself.
Narayanan plays an interventionist role in intelligence matters, puppeteering both IB and RAW. According to sources in the Prime Ministerís Office (PMO), Narayanan wanted the current RAW chief, Tharakan, to object to Ashok Chaturvediís promotion as special secretary. Although he is a protege of Narayanan, Tharakan declined, telling close associates that alienating the cabinet secretary on this issue would make his life as RAW chief complicated.
But the issue of succession within RAW goes beyond personalities. In recent years, RAW has been seriously undermined by a succession of scandals, including honey traps laid for its agents by foreign governments, shoplifting by its operatives abroad, loss of at least one briefcase with secrets by one of its officers and feeble attempts to impose discipline within.
The most sensational among its scandals has been the defection to the US of RAW operative Rabindra Singh, who dealt with America within the agency and passed on secrets to the Central Intelligence Agency.
When the UPA government took office, Narayanan brought in Tharakan, then on the verge of retirement as director-general of police in Kerala, and gave him a two-year tenure as RAW chief to clean up the organisation.
Tharakan, a former RAW agent with a stellar record, did his best, but was hamstrung by a cabal of four senior officers, one with questionable business interests in Mauritius and another with continuing dubious ties with the Americans. Neither Tharakan nor Narayanan, for instance, has been able to properly investigate or check how one of the senior RAW officers in the running to be the next chief has made 52 foreign trips in the last one year: that works out to one trip abroad every week!
The protest over Ashok Chaturvediís choice from the intelligence community revolves around the view that a new broom, not an insider, is needed to clean up the mess within RAW at a time when the country faces unprecedented intelligence challenges.