Friday, February 04, 2005

INDIA: Our neighbourhood management is a disaster

+ In Bangladesh, for example, RAW repeatedly warned of growing Islamist control and threats to pro-Indian entities, but Natwar preferred that India depend entirely on his high commissioner, Veena Sikri, an extremely capable and daring career diplomat, but naturally limited in intelligence-collection. Can one ambassador equal the output of hundreds of networks? Since the Indian mission preferred its own resources, whatever they be, the networks began feeding the headquarters directly in Delhi. The growth of Islamism and threats to pro-Indian elements was ignored. Until the attack on Sheikh Hasina Wajed, that is. For full four hours, according to insiders, the government was in panic whether she was alive or dead, and the Indian mission had no clue, reduced to depending on CNN and BBC. In desperation, Dixit contacted RAW, which confirmed she was alive, and then the whole story stumbled out, the groups behind the assassination attempt, the individuals who had suspiciously quit Bangladesh a day before the attack, and so on.+

Dangerous meddling: Our neighbourhood management is a disaster.

3 February 2005: In regard to King Gyanendra’s coup in Nepal, it is pointless saying, “We told you so,”. Indian intelligence channels were very alive to the king’s various plottings to overthrow the elected government, his secret talks with the Maoists, the two meetings he called of the Raj Parishad in November and December, and the rest.

Funnily, or not so funnily, while the agencies knew on an hour-to-hour basis what Gyanendra was scheming, among the agencies, RAW in the main, the government chose to sit over its situation reports, ignore, so to say, the warnings. If the government had cleared RAW to act, what that action could be is now in the realm of speculation, Gyanendra just possibly may not have taken the extreme step.

Why the government did not act on RAW’s emergency findings is part of a larger story, the steady demoralisation and destruction of the agency, especially in the last days of J.N.Dixit as NSA. Dixit died in the beginning of January, but he was a battered man by then, battered by the PMO infighting and turf war with M.K.Narayanan, who has succeeded him to his job.

Narayanan’s idea which is crystallising now is to gradually have the Intelligence Bureau take over RAW’s operations in the neighbouring countries, and finally have one mega agency handling all intelligence work, external and internal. Outside of totalitarian states, no one contemplates such madness, but this is a very real possibility. As this RAW takeover is conceived, those RAW sections handling sensitive neighbourhood operations would be attached to IB to train its officers, and either these sections are then absorbed in IB or disbanded, effectively shrinking RAW.

This scheme had presumably been smelt out by Dixit, and Dixit being a traditionalist in some sense, opposed it. Tied to this scheme was having an IB officer head RAW, or have RAW lead by an “insider-outsider”, one who had served RAW for a length of time but had refused the Research and Analysis Service (RAS) and been posted out, to a regular police assignment.

Narayanan was pushing for the present IB director, E.S.L.Narasimhan, to head RAW, perhaps quite against the officer’s own inclination, because he is making up to be a fine DIB. If not Narasimhan, then the current RAW chief, P.K.Hormese Tharakan, an “insider-outsider”, as they say, a decent officer, but with no operational experience in RAW. If you are not operational in RAW, you don’t necessarily get the respect of the service. Narayanan’s gameplan, resisted by Dixit to the end, was to use the “outsider” or “insider outsider” to gain control of RAW, and eventually merge it with IB.

To an extent, Dixit succeeded in his resistance, because before his death, the government had decided on a RAW third-in-line, Ambar Sen, a capable operational officer, as chief. But while the government had decided it, it was not notified, depending on Dixit’s capacity to push the case to the end, but he passed away. But even before that, for a good two weeks or more, when the decision on the next chief went hanging, deep uncertainty rocked RAW.

In the trade, the long Christmas-New Year weekend is a good time to make new moves, new contacts, and January is a good month to plan ahead. Some of the most spectacular intelligence operations take place during this time. But because of the uncertainty, and Narayanan’s prowling, RAW went figuratively dead in this long weekend, and in the whole month of January. Operations were down, intelligence-collection became a trickle, and the agency had no direction.

The Dixit-Narayanan duel was not the only thing affecting RAW. Dixit was trying to get pro-active on foreign negotiations and foreign policy-making riding on his own experience as foreign secretary, and his friends in other foreign services, and he was also drawing on RAW feeds, feeds that the government was in normal course ignoring. This put Dixit and through Dixit RAW in opposition to the foreign office and foreign minister Natwar Singh. Whenever RAW provided actionable intelligence, Natwar quickly intervened to say that the foreign office would take necessary action, without understanding that an Indian ambassador/ high commissioner has few useful eyes and ears of his/ her own, and that necessarily RAW inputs have to be taken and acted upon.

In Bangladesh, for example, RAW repeatedly warned of growing Islamist control and threats to pro-Indian entities, but Natwar preferred that India depend entirely on his high commissioner, Veena Sikri, an extremely capable and daring career diplomat, but naturally limited in intelligence-collection. Can one ambassador equal the output of hundreds of networks? Since the Indian mission preferred its own resources, whatever they be, the networks began feeding the headquarters directly in Delhi. The growth of Islamism and threats to pro-Indian elements was ignored.

Until the attack on Sheikh Hasina Wajed, that is. For full four hours, according to insiders, the government was in panic whether she was alive or dead, and the Indian mission had no clue, reduced to depending on CNN and BBC. In desperation, Dixit contacted RAW, which confirmed she was alive, and then the whole story stumbled out, the groups behind the assassination attempt, the individuals who had suspiciously quit Bangladesh a day before the attack, and so on.

But obviously, Bangladesh’s lessons were not learnt in Nepal, either in case of the attack on an Indian convoy last year, which was known in advance to RAW, or in King Gyanendra’s present coup, of which there were solid intimations, partly reported and analysed by this magazine. But as with Bangladesh, Natwar Singh prevented any proactive, preemptive steps from RAW in Nepal, saying that the foreign office was well in control of things.

This delusional control led to the drift in relations with the king, who kept postponing his visit to India all of last year and this January. As usual, India has reacted, by Manmohan Singh canceling his SAARC visit to Dhaka, postponing the summit, but this cannot undo the coup. Worse, India is missing the nuance of the situation, condemning the king in line with the US and British response, thereby destroying the little lever we have with him. Nepal is in our frontyard, not in those of the US and Britain, which being distant powers can perhaps afford to be tough.

The mess in the neighbourhood, the failing Indo-Pak dialogue, the growing brazenness of Bangladesh, and the challenge thrown by the Nepal king, are all the result of deadened or rather deadwood diplomacy under Natwar Singh. At a commanders’ conference last year, Manmohan Singh called India a “super regional power”. But this year, Natwar told BBC Hindi that India had no regional power ambitions. Who is he talking about? Maldives?

And into this mess, the NSA, Narayanan, has inserted another, with his crackpot scheme to merge RAW and IB, but enervate RAW to achieve this. This is dangerous meddling. Tharakan, the RAW chief, has given no intimation of the impending destruction of the agency in his internal interactions, but officials warn that he will be tested on his capacity to protect the interests of the agency, and consequently, national interests. Too much is going wrong, and the PM must actively intervene before it gets worse and irredeemable. There is a coup now in Nepal. What next?