Tuesday, 4 September 2018

India's spooks: Getting too big for their boots?

The pitfalls of an intelligence agency getting rather ahead of itself are fairly easy to spot. The doings of friendly neighbourhood bogeyman, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is an easy example. Unfortunately, the times in India have got to such a pass, that the question in the title needs framing and needs an answer. 

The recent arrests of leading human rights activists across the country, supposedly in relation to a Naxal plot to assassinate the prime minister, provide the juncture for the question. Presumably, the police acted at the behest of their political masters, fed in turn by intelligence agencies. 

There are two possibilities. The political masters acted autonomously and have had the intelligence agencies cook up the rationale. Second, the intelligence agencies fed the political masters what they know their political masters would lap up. Both possibilities do not speak well of the good health of India's intelligence agencies. 

Intelligence agencies in both cases appear in cahoots with the Hindutva inspired political dispensation. They are certainly not in sync with their professional obligation of political neutrality and keeping to their intelligence related mandate. This bespeaks of subversion of the intelligence agencies from within by the Hindutva project. 

This is aggravated in light of the higher profile of intelligence community in the strategic scheme lately. The higher profile owes primarily to their doyen tenanting the chair of national security adviser. This places him in control of key appointments. His sharing of the ethnic profile and proximity with an army general reportedly led to the elevation of the general to head the army. His sharing of an alma mater - a college in Meerut - perhaps helped with the current incumbent in the Srinagar Raj Bhawan landing the job. 

Former intelligence honchos have had bestsellers out, shaping the national security narrative on various issues including Kashmir and Pakistan. The take away from these tracts is the inordinate levels of reliance on intelligence men with regard to both internal security - in relation for instance with Kashmir - and foreign policy - in relation with Pakistan. Their role expansion relegates the place of the home ministry bureaucracy, foreign service specialists and the military input in the national security schema. It can be inferred that the mess in both these key policy areas owes to the internal institutional balance in favour of the intelligence agencies 

A former intelligence agency head is on an unending conflict analysis spree as the special representative for engaging interlocutors in Kashmir. While he can be expected to have expertise in negotiations, it would be in the field of hostage release etc, and not one informed by peace negotiation or mediation. It is no wonder when asked as to what his Kashmir policy amounted to in a recent staged interview, the prime minister said that there was an interlocutor out in Kashmir talking to people. It's close to a year now of talk masquerading as policy. 

His predecessor at the intelligence agency demitted appointment as a special envoy on counter terrorism, with a remit intruding on foreign service turf of engaging governments in West Asia and Af-Pak on the issue. One former intelligence man, who also was once also in the army, is a talking-head specialising in disrupting and diverting discussions on prime time, and on that count is understandably favourite of Republic TV and Times Now. 

Each think tank in Delhi has it quota of former spooks, who dutifully weigh in with Pakistan-bashing and insinuations against Muslims on terrorism. One ensconced in the Vivekananda International Foundation has complemented his hatchet job on Jawaharlal Nehru of a couple of years back recently with a book extolling Sardar Patel. Another, former head of the military intelligence, is its strategic studies minder. The think tank's profile is evident from serving military officers now doing stints with the VIF and each of the three chiefs having lectured there successively. The affiliations of the VIF are no secret, with the book 'Defining Hindutva' having been released there by Mohan Bhagwat in the run up to last elections. 

Intelligence denizens are current day masters of the narrative. The heading of a recent article - 'The Enduring Threat' - by the earlier intelligence chief - who was also national security adviser - raised expectations of a possible reference to the ongoing arrests by Maharashtra's Anti-Terror Squad of saffronite terrorists. However, it turned out instead to be all about Islamic State (IS) and, how it, though roundly beaten, continues as a threat. Given that the IS is history and history on-the-make in the tradition of Hemant Karkare closer home is ignored thus, the question emerges as to the lengths the intelligence community will go in putting out diversionary narratives. It bears recall that though reportedly a Gandhi family favourite, the vilification of Muslims and the ascendance of then chief minister Modi as the savior of Hindus - after the killings of alleged terrorists out to get Mr. Modi - began in his tenure as national security adviser. 

There are two consequences of the discussion above. One is the higher profile of the intelligence lobby is at the cost of that of the ministries - home, foreign and defence - and the military. This makes the national security system go awry. In a change-over early this year, a RAW hand was appointed deputy national security adviser. His last appointment was in the secretariat as the resident Pakistan watcher, no doubt leading up to aggravating the hardline on Pakistan. As an afterthought a diplomat has recently been added as a second deputy. The imbalance is reflected at the ministerial level. The defence minister is a novice and double hatted as a party spokesperson. Her latest episode was on national television in a face off with a Karnataka minister. The foreign minister has been ill for most of her tenure, as has been the finance minister. The home minister appears to have his heart in the right place but has no muscle. Thus, there is little ballast in the other national security relevant institutions. 

The second more grievous underside is in the fact that the cultural nationalists - as seen above - have the run of intelligence services. The Pakistan obsession of the intelligence fraternity and the fixation with India's minority, its Muslims, of the Hindutvavadis, makes for a coming together in a shared, symbiotic relationship. It cannot be said with any surety that the Hindutva brigade is one that has taken over the intelligence lobby. It is well nigh possible that the intelligence community has opened itself to such a take-over. This ideological disposition of the intelligence community perhaps stems from their four-decade long cloak-and-dagger game with the ISI. The ISI has evidently been more successful than credited so far. It appears to have instigated a make-over of India in the Pakistani image, engineering a right-wing reset of democratic and plural India into a Hindu-Pakistan. 

A roll back will have to await next elections. In the interim, the intelligence card will recur in the runup to national elections. The corralling of urban naxals is but a beginning. With minorities already cornered by lynch mobs; civil society cowed by a compliant-police; institutions such as universities hollowed out; the common man bruised by demonetization and job scarcity; and dissent murdered by right wing goon squads, it would appear that this may not be necessary. But if all at hand is a hammer, every problem will appear a nail. The ultimate infliction on democracy is the alliance between the intelligence instrument and an ideology.