The foreign hand

For an Indian who has known for long that ‘foreign hands’ try to stir the domestic pot, it is amusing to read an Oxford don declaring that it is now Brazil’s and India’s turn to have their elections manipulated by Russia. Professor Philip N. Howard, of the Oxford Internet Institute, recently told the US senate intelligence committee that Russia would seek to interfere in the forthcoming elections in Brazil and India, after having “successfully done so in the US in 2016. That may be news to the greenhorns in the US senate, but no one in the third world would be surprised.

For years now, intelligence agencies of major powers, especially the US and Russia, have tried to manipulate public opinion in many countries. Not only have they tried to ‘influence’ the democratic process, but both have been guilty of even jettisoning democracy to suit their national interest.

Some believe that Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency after being told by Cuba’s Fidel Castro that after the assassination of Chile’s Salvador Allende, allegedly by the CIA, she was to be the next target. The KGB’s attempt to influence Indian politicians is now partly documented in the Mitrokhin Archives (mitrokhinarchives.com).

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, Vikram Sood, writes in his book, The Unending Game: A Former R&AW Chief’s Insights into Espionage: “Throughout the Cold War, India was an arena where all the major intelligence agencies carried on with their Cold War rivalries. Attempts to entice and suborn politicians, civil servants, armed forces and the media were routine.” Sood tells us about the systematic manner in which both the CIA and the KGB have sought to influence the political discourse in India both through direct intervention, like funding ‘friendly’ individuals and institutions, and through the media.

What Howard did not reveal to the US senate is the preference the Russians are likely to show in Brazil and India. In the US, the Russians allegedly favoured President Donald Trump. We can easily surmise, given the politics of Brazil, that the Russians are likely to favour the former trade unionist and ex-president Lula da Silva. According to the Mitrokhin Archives, the Soviets opted for Indira Gandhi during the Cold War. Sood mentions that some in India believed the Americans favoured Morarji Desai. One wonders who their candidates would be today.

Staying away from Cold War binaries and recognising the increasingly multipolar nature of the global balance of power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a balance in India’s relations with both the US and Russia. Both are unlikely to want to see him go.

While much is written about the role of the CIA and the KGB in India, we know little about the role of the intelligence agencies of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, of course, Pakistan. The fact is all of them should be expected to be active in India. Over the past decade, they have all tried to influence Indian public opinion. The Indian government has adequate information on this score. During the political debate in India on the civil nuclear energy agreement between India and the US, all of the above tried to influence public opinion on the deal and India’s relations with the US. The most active were the Chinese and the Iranians.

It is surprising that so much of the US public debate on the ‘foreign hand’ remains focused on Russia. Surely, the Chinese and the nations of the Middle East must have an equal interest in the outcome of US elections. The bottom line is that spooking is what everyone does to everyone. Only some get found out.

Baru is an economist and a writer.

He was adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.