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.