Both 1977 and 1997 were abysmal years for the Indian intelligence community. When Morarji Desai came to power, in some mysterious way General Zia-ul-Haq gained access to lists of Indian agents in Pakistan, most of whom were captured and executed. A few were turned around and became double agents, feeding Indian agencies with disinfornation carefully prepared by the ISI. Much of this comprised exaggerated estimates of Pakistani capability, clearly intended to blunt Delhi’s propensity for a vigorous reaction to the ISI plan (then under preparation) to inflame Punjab by funding the Khalistan movement. In this, the ISI was assisted by expatriate communities in Canada, California and the UK, all of whom contributed generously to those eager to begin the bloody insurgency that cost over 9,000 lives and much grief in a state that had till then been among the most stable in India.
In 1997, Inder Kumar Gujral took office as Prime Minister, and began a statesmanlike process of healing rifts between India and Pakistan. Part of this process involved the dismantling of intelligence networks in Pakistan, along with most of Delhi’s capability to inflict pain on the Pakistan establishment for its many acts of commission in India, ranging from funding for terrorists in Kashmir, Punjab and the Northeast, to help given to NGOs determined to send as many armed personnel to jail for “excesses” as they could. Gujral was not given an opportunity to see if his soft approach would succeed in transforming the attitude of the Pakistan establishment towards India, because he was sent packing once Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress president and looked forward to a 1992-style victory in the Lok Sabha polls that followed. Of course, instead it was the BJP led by A.B. Vajpayee that took office, only to be defeated because of the 1999 Tea Party alliance between Sonia and J. Jayalalithaa. Fortunately for him, General Musharraf sent in his irregulars mixed with crack forces to infiltrate Indian positions in Kargil, and in the ensuing burst of “Yeh Dil Mange More” patriotism, the BJP came back to power.
Enter Palaniappan Chidambaram, who — as he will modestly admit — is far and away the most capable member of the Union Cabinet, and the man most qualified to be Prime Minister. Since he took over the Home portfolio in 2008, Chidambaram has single-mindedly focused on bringing all law enforcement and intelligence agencies under his command. By now, this task has been substantially achieved, largely through getting his hand-picked nominees in as the heads of the major intelligence organisations. The exception has been the NTRO (the only phone monitoring agency that reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, and hence — in the view of those who believe that reports should get sent to 10 Janpath rather than to 5 Race Course Road — an outfit that needs to be gutted in a culture where 10 Janpath rather than 5 RCR is seen as the legitimate fount of authority).
Two retired army officers close to Home Minister Chidambaram and his son Karthik are believed to be behind a coordinated effort to blacken the reputation of those now in charge of that organisation. Although the NTRO has asked the Intelligence Bureau for an investigation of the linkages of the individual used by them for this operation, thus far the IB has refused to act, perhaps because some within it are aware of the high-level inspiration behind the smear campaign. In contrast to the NTRO, both the IB as well as the Research & Analysis Wing are firmly in the hands of those close to the all-powerful Union Home Minister, whose closeness to the higher rungs of the Indian media is the source of much jealousy among professional PR agencies.
Sadly, while those selected by Chidambaram to take charge of the country’s intelligence agencies are united in their admiration for the country’s dapper Home Minister, their track record in office has been patchy. In the Aviation Research Service, there are numerous questions being raised about the activities of an individual known within the organisation as “Mister 12%”, who is being steered towards yet another promotion by higher-ups who have featured along with him in numerous high-value projects, such as the purchase of UAVs. In RAW, those in the Research & Analysis Service have found themselves blocked from the fast-track promotions given to those who have come through the policeman exemplary force, but one whose training equips it for crime detection rather than for the specialised intelligence work needed in the 21st century. Recent changes in policy, such as giving policepersons permanent status in RAW and directly recruiting Senior Field Officers (thereby choking promotion opportunities for existing Field Officers) have added to the already existing loss of morale.
But does Chidambaram care? Even such bloopers such as the inclusion of absurd names in lists handed over to Pakistan, or a CBI squad landing up in Copenhagen with an arrest warrant that expired four months ago, do not seem to have fazed India’s own Don Rumsfeld. After all, if H.R. Bhardwaj and Arun Jaitley could get promoted in politics despite (or perhaps because of) having fluffed the extradition of Ottavio Quattrocchi, the bloomers made by Chidambaram only go to show that he is the ideal candidate for Prime Ministership in a country where the government works best when it smothers citizens’ rights and economic growth.