The KGB and Indian Democracy

It’s not surprising but it is still news to me that the KGB attempted to steer the Indian ship of state. I grew up hearing rumors of the CIA doing all sorts of nasty things around the world, of course. The KGB, as the other spy in the real life adaptation of the Mad Spy Versus Spy, was as active I conjectured. Clearly India had enough commies crawling around for the KGB to find willing agents. So when I read (via The Acorn) the TIMESonline of the UK report that KGB records show how spies penetrated the heart of India, I was a sadder but wiser man:

A HUGE cache of KGB records smuggled out of Moscow after the fall of communism reveal that in the 1970s India was one of the countries most successfully penetrated by Soviet intelligence.
A number of senior KGB officers have testified that, under Indira Gandhi, India was one of their priority targets.

“We had scores of sources through the Indian Government — in intelligence, counter-intelligence, the defence and foreign ministries and the police,” said Oleg Kalugin, once the youngest general in Soviet foreign intelligence and responsible for monitoring KGB penetration abroad. India became “a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government”, he added.

Despite her own frugal lifestyle, suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to the Prime Minister’s house to finance her wing of the Congress Party. One of her opponents claimed that Mrs Gandhi did not even return the suitcases.

The Russians were also extremely active in trying to influence Indian opinion. According to KGB files, by 1973 it had on its payroll ten Indian newspapers as well as a press agency. The previous year the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in Indian newspapers — probably more than in any other country in the non-communist world. By 1975 the number of articles it claimed to have inspired had risen to 5,510. India was also one of the most favourable environments for Soviet front organisations.

OK, so far so good. An instructive story indeed. But what lesson does one draw from it? That the Soviets tried but failed to influence India materially? Maybe. But I don’t understand the position of one reader of
The Acorn when he wrote:

What an amazing story. One of the (then) world’s superpowers pumps in millions, and yet, our democratic institutions have been strong enough to withstand them.

The article says that between 3 and 5 thousand stories had been planted in the Indian press and that the prime minister had been bribed. The press and the prime minister’s office, I guess, are important democratic institutions. They were compromised. It hardly speaks to the strength of our democratic institutions.

Now the rejoinder may be this: “Yes, but don’t you see the Indian voter, so wonderfully perceptive, immediately saw through those thousands of planted stories and recognized the corruption of the Congress decided to vote them out of office? Amazing rectitude and foresight and perspicacity of the Indian voter, isn’t it?”

Indeed it would be, if only this were true. The average Indian voter did not read newspapers and therefore whether they contained planted fake articles or they contained the wisdom of the ancients is not material. The average Indian voter could not even know about the corruption at high levels, especially when it come to the party of Gandhi (happily ascribing the old man’s virtues to Nehru’s children). This was so because the average Indian voter was an illiterate rural voter who was as likely to read the doctored papers as I am likely to read the Pravda—hardly likely since I am illiterate in Russian.

What scared the holy crap out of the average Indian voter was the rumor that the government of Indira Gandhi was out to castrate him. It all started with the idiot Sanjay Gandhi forcibly administering vasectomies on some hapless poor people in a misguided but well-intentioned effort to stop the population explosion. To the above mentioned average Indian voter, castration and vasectomies are synonymous. It was their fear of losing their gonads and being turned into eunuchs that did the trick, not some imagined resilience of India’s “democratic institution.”

It is not hard to determine the source of the confusion about India’s much trumpeted democracy. It arises from the mistaken belief that democracy is about going to a voting station periodically to cast a vote for a party of one’s choice. True, democracy is about choosing who you want to give the power to govern you. But is it not just choice, it is about informed choice. How one can be informed about parties and people who are so far removed from one – geographically, socially, economically, psychically – and with the additional handicap of being illiterate, is a mystery to me. To me, democracy means a lot more than an uninformed horde putting its thumb impression on a symbol (most people cannot read) and the choice is sometimes dictated by a harmless petty bribe, and sometimes by the more pernicious promises of the politicians such as free power or job reservations.

Democracy is not about the periodic general elections in which the choice is increasingly limited to a gallery of the most corrupt thugs in the constituency. It is about democratic institutions such as a free and informed system of electing of public-spirited political leaders, a free market, an efficient legal system which recognizes property rights and enforces contracts without delay, a police force that prevents crime instead of doing crime, a rule of law that recognizes all its citizens as equals and is blind to religion and creed, etc, none of which are developed in India.

There is no reason on earth why we don’t have a good democracy in place. Or maybe there is a good reason. India’s feudal past could explain it to some extent. With a long history of being serfs and slaves, bending in servitude comes naturally. True, voting allows a person to choose, but serfs and slaves can vote the feudal lord into power pretty effectively.

We need democracy in India now. Since democracy is of the people and by the people, the people have to be at the very least informed and not ignorant. We the people have to become literate and educated before we can truthfully boast of being the largest democracy in the world. Until we become literate and educated, I would not speak too loudly of how great a democracy we are.

Ascribing the failures of the KGB to a mysterious maturity of the Indian democracy makes one feel good but lulls us into complacency that we have arrived and there is no need for any futher effort.

Related link: See the IndianExpress report “KGB paid Congress, CPI, media” for more gory details.

8 thoughts on “The KGB and Indian Democracy

  1. Anonymous Sunday September 18, 2005 / 9:12 pm

    There are two things that can be deduced from this:
    1) The Gandhi family is a threat to this nation- sad that they have managed to maintain a stranglehold over the people’s minds. Some day, the “magic” would fail to enthuse, until unless there are enough morons to vote them in power.

    2)The leftists and marxist combine that has throttled this nation. If KGB were able to “plant” the stories, blame it on the media mindset; the true freedom of press is only relegated to the textbooks and “gandhian idealism”.

    The ideological leftists are happy to prostate themselves in front of Marx and the Chinese; endangering the nation.

    There is nothing worse than being a Hindu in a Hindu majority nation. Alas, we have been relegated to second rate citizens.


  2. Jyoti Iyer Tuesday September 20, 2005 / 7:32 am

    Hi Atanu,

    I think we overestimate the role of democracy,with its limited scope; it does have its ironies and contradictions. I’m currently reading, “The Irony of Democracy” by Dye and Zeigler and it is interesting how the term can be misinterpreted or twisted to suit different situations by the ruling elite to lull people into complacency.




  3. Amit Tuesday September 20, 2005 / 12:57 pm

    How does the writer then account for the recent outster of the BJP and its replacement with the Congress party? Indians are still mostly poor and illiterate, yet these same Indians somehow knew that they didn’t really belive in the current government and its propoganda. And the congress party wasn’t even doing a good job of campaigning, in fact it was said after the election that the second most surprised person after Advani was Sonya the day the election results came out. I think that democracy is flourishing in India and that compared to most of the other countries in Asia it is far ahead.


  4. Atanu Dey Tuesday September 20, 2005 / 1:06 pm

    Amit, the BJP and its allies lost the election to the Congress and its allies. But a number of facts can put paid to the notion that the BJP was chucked out because of a change of heart on the part of the voters. First the Congress got only a few seats more than the BJP. In the end, it is who the parties allied with that mattered. Second, the incumbency factor: when people are unhappy with the current state, they vote the current guy in power. The next time around, the Congress will be out on its butt.


  5. S Jagadish Tuesday September 20, 2005 / 9:10 pm

    Guess what, politicians seem to have had fun with the KGB *and* the CIA funding them!


  6. Amit Uttam Tuesday September 20, 2005 / 10:57 pm

    But that is the whole point of democracy. Politicans should fear being removed the next time around and work their hardest to ensure that it dosen’t happen. In fact I would call it democracy at work. Moreover I disagree with the contention that the BJP lost by a few votes, I think it was a substantial margin given the nature of that particular election. Indian governments are always run in coalition because with all the regional parties there is no way one party will ever again gain enough seats to form a government by itself. India’s only problem stems from its misguided understanding of the world. If the Indian government worked even a little bit with private industry and promoted Indian buisness as the US, Japan, SK and China does then India could easily pull ahead of any country in the world. Indian politicians just don’t really understand how to work hand in hand with industries other than IT. Even IT is having problems geting their voice heard when it comes to funding adequate infrastructure. This is after its substantial contribution to the FOREX and India’s financial stability. Indian political thought and philosophy needs revision.


  7. desh Saturday September 24, 2005 / 12:52 am

    please do read this with the story of the Netaji’s mystery! According to that story he is supposed to have been tortured in Siberia and was actually going to Russia when his air crash was faked.

    go to


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