Thursday, October 20, 2005

Conservative wisdom (October 21, 2005)

There is a deep distrust of inner-party democracy in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a political creed, Conservatism, with a capital C, is naturally nation-specific. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and even Lee Kuan Yew may inspire Conservatives across national boundaries but, at the end of the day, Conservative parties depend on home-grown heroes and a very indigenous idiom. Apart from the loose commitment to individual freedom, entrepreneurship and national identity, there is little that President George W. Bush has in common with, say, President Jacques Chirac. Yet both represent the dominant Conservative trends in the US and France. Likewise, there is a marked difference between the Conservatism of Lord Salisbury, whose portrait occupies the pride of place in London’s Carlton Club, and Margaret Thatcher. One was a 19th century Tory grandee who flaunted his “illiberal” credentials; the other, a grocer’s daughter, was in many ways a radical.

Notwithstanding the absence of anything remotely resembling a Conservative International, the British Conservative Party holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of most ideological Conservatives—to be distinguished from instinctive Tories. First, Britain has the longest, unbroken tradition of political Conservatism. Second, this Conservatism, in a very un-Conservative way, has actually been articulated as a philosophy by thinkers by, among others, Edmund Burke, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. Theoretical rigour may now be the hallmark of the Neo-Conservatives in the US Republican Party, but the process predated the Jewish intellectual concerts from Trotskyism. Finally, the British Conservative Party has had the uncanny ability to reinvent itself periodically. For over 150 years, it has demonstrated its willingness to not only change but change for the better.

This week, the Conservative Party has completed the first round of an elaborate exercise to elect a leader to succeed Michael Howard. From a field of four, the party’s elected MPs in Westminster have short-listed two candidates. Approximately 300,000 Conservative Party members across Britain will now elect one of them as leader. As an exercise in democratic consultation, the process is exciting. Unlike the past when either the incumbent chose his successor or left it just to the MPs, the present procedure ensures that the new leader is both acceptable to parliamentary colleagues and endorsed by the foot soldiers. Since MPs are most concerned with winning power and the grassroots activists with Conservative values, the winner in the leadership race is expected to marry the twin imperatives of pragmatism and ideology.

It is instructive to scrutinise the leadership contest in the Conservative Party in view of the imminent changes in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the only party that fits the Conservative tag in India. In end-December, at the conclusion of the party’s National Council meet in Mumbai, party president L.K. Advani will hand over charge to a “colleague”. With just 10 weeks to go before the event, there is an eerie silence from within the party over the succession. While the media has speculated wildly over Advani’s successor, the party itself is in denial about the succession.

The contrast with the Conservative leadership contest couldn’t be more pronounced. For the past four months there has been a vibrant public debate about the future of Conservatism in a post-Thatcher Britain. Has the image of the party become excessively “ugly”? What has to be done to connect Conservatism with modernity? Should core values prevail over electoral imperatives? Should the new leader merely look to the committed or address floating voters? These are some of the important questions that have been addressed by the candidates for the top post. There has, in short, been a healthy exchange of ideas.

True, some of the preoccupation has been over image and the background of the candidates. The privileged Eton and Oxford background of 39-year-old David Cameron has been juxtaposed against the more humble origins of David Davies. At 65, Kenneth Clarke has been painted as a man of the past. There have been rude remarks of him having too much hair in his nostrils. Some retired colonels in the Shires have expressed indignation over Cameron’s ambivalence over a wild past, while old ladies have warmed up to him as the new “alpha man”.

The extent to which the replication of American primaries in the Conservative Party helps its members make a wise choice is still a matter of conjecture. However, there is little doubt that the process itself will be invigorating for a party that has tasted three consecutive election defeats. Although the Westminster system is parliamentary, electoral encounters are invariably presidential in nature. Voters in Britain do select an MP but they actually vote for a Prime Minister.

As of now there is little clarity in the BJP as to whether it is choosing a president to run the organisation or selecting a leader who will be the public face of the National Democratic Alliance in the next general election. In all probability, the wise men in the Sangh Parivar will settle for a president who can bring some order and stability back into the party and help it get over the turbulence of the past year. The choice of a prime ministerial candidate is likely to be deferred, at least till as long as Advani remains Leader of Opposition.

Yet, the choice cannot be deferred indefinitely. While the return of stability in the organisation is imperative for the BJP to play the role of a robust opposition, the NDA will need a face to posit against Sonia Gandhi in the next general election. There are at least four leaders, three of whom were Cabinet ministers in the previous NDA Government and one who is a Chief Minister, who could, arguably, occupy the space vacated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But how will the leader be chosen?

The question arises because there has been a deep distrust of vibrant inner-party democracy in India. Neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Jawaharlal Nehru could countenance a Congress president elected against their wishes. Both Subhas Bose and Purshottam Das Tandon were unceremoniously dumped after winning presidential contests. To circumvent the problem, the very idea of elections for top political posts was done away with. Regimented consensus and unanimity became the norm. A spurious form of discipline was posited against the dangers arising from factionalism. Consequently, splits became the norm in India because the avenues of discussion and dissent were foreclosed.

The BJP faces the problem as much as the Congress does. Whereas in the Congress it is the ubiquitous high command that calls the shots, in the BJP a clutch of elders take all the crucial decisions. Pramod Mahajan’s veiled protest against this practice, in a TV interview last week, was valid. Equally valid was his suggestion that the National Council should elect the next party president. However, unless the outgoing president is bent on imposing an unacceptable candidate on an unwilling party, it is unlikely that anything remotely resembling the Conservative Party leadership contest will be witnessed in Mumbai in December. Even if a contest is forced, it will end up as a non-contest.

The political culture in India hasn’t sufficiently evolved for inner-party battles to be conducted in the public gaze without this jeopardising the overall health of the organisation. The overwhelming consensus is that family matters should be settled internally and behind closed doors. The BJP perceives itself as a joint family. In such a set-up, it is always the moral guardians who are entrusted with crucial decisions on behalf of the collective.

It is not classical democracy in the Western sense but it is a manifestation of Indian Conservatism.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 21, 2005)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Truth beyond the archive (October 7, 2005)

A public inquiry into Mitrokhin's disclosures would be helpful

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is habitual for the Opposition to make exaggerated demands on the Government of the day, and equally routine for ministers to reject them peremptorily. Yet, it was singularly discourteous of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to, first, disregard a joint letter on The Mitrokhin Archive disclosures from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Leaders of Opposition from both Houses of Parliament and, then, organise an uninformed media response by the Minister of State for Home Affairs S.P.Jaiswal. In view of the grave charges of KGB penetration into the Government, intelligence agencies, politics and media of the country, particularly in the 1970s, the BJP leaders pressed for a public inquiry. In the first official reaction to the disclosures, Jaiswal claimed that the BJP indignation was “devoid of merit.” Echoing the Congress spokesman’s charge of unsubstantiated “sensationalism” levelled against Vasili Mitrokhin, the Minister said that the Government was not expected to take note of every allegation by retired spooks.

Despite Jaiswal’s misplaced bluntness, the Government’s response fits a pattern. From the day extracts from The Mitrokhin Archive-II began appearing in the media, nervous Congressmen and Communists have been consciously trying to equate the disclosures with some of the more incredible tell-all memoirs of defectors and ex-spies. The voluble CPI leader A.B. Bardhan, for example, called the book a “spy thriller” and the Congress spokesman even suggested that it “should not be dignified by (a) reaction.” To add to the volley of trivialisation, a retired intelligence officer conveniently revealed that two leaders of the erstwhile Jana Sangh held “secret” meetings with a KGB agent at Wengers, once a favourite meeting point for Delhi politicians. The CPI(M) too fleetingly entered the battle screaming libel, and then quietly withdrawing when it dawned on its leaders that it was actually the KGB which had sullied the late Promode Das Gupta’s reputation by painting him as an IB informer.

While it is compelling to suggest that there is little point in raking up the past, now that the Soviet Union is itself history, it would be a mistake to view Mirokhin’s disclosures as yet another motivated and unsubstantiated leak. First, unlike the spy hunts that routinely arouse Cold War nostalgia in the West, The Mitrokhin Archive is not based either on intelligent deductions or casual reminiscences of retired George Smileys. Mitrokhin, who defected to the UK in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not personally involved in the KGB operations he has described. He was an archivist who had unique access to all the KGB files, including the identities of moles, sleepers and informers. For more than a decade, he made copious notes in longhand from the files and, when the opportunity presented itself, passed these on to the British MI6. The Mitrokhin Archive is the closest approximation to a history of the KGB, as seen through the organisation’s own records. Its importance is stupendous.

Second, although Mitrokhin was personally anxious to secure the publication of all the material he smuggled out of the erstwhile USSR, the British Government was more circumspect. Realising the explosive nature of its contents and its likely consequences, it evolved a rigid criterion to determine what should be published and what should be left unsaid. Malcolm Rifkind, the Home Secretary in John Major’s government decreed that “The names of people the KGB had targeted for recruitment or attempted to influence could not be made public unless they had been prosecuted or convicted or they had agreed to the release of their names.” Rifkind was particularly insistent that it was not up to the intelligence agencies “to decide whether or not names should be revealed.” He also made it clear that this “did not apply to British names.”

The decision to impose political control over the publication of the Mitrokhin archive was subsequently upheld by a June 2000 report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the House of Commons, chaired by Tom King. The King Report specified that the release of details would be undertaken in a “controlled manner” and that “none would be published without Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Security Service clearance.” An inter-departmental working group under Whitehall’s Intelligence Coordinator was established and it ensured that “the policy on the exclusion of certain categories of information from the book was complied with.”

The predictable dismay among readers that The Mitrokhin Archive names only those who are dead is understandable. However, that is not because Mitrokhin’s notes were patchy. The names of those who helped the KGB in the past and who continue to play a role in public life have been carefully omitted for diplomatic reasons. The British Government, it would seem, was anxious to ensure that it was discreetly detached from a publication that is for all practical purposes an official publication.

Yet, the agonised soul-searching in Whitehall does convey a powerful message. It implies that the carefully vetted details which were found suitable for publication bear an official stamp of authenticity. For an Indian Minister to describe the The Mitrokhin Archive as a series of baseless claims is an act of puerile evasion.

In pressing for a public inquiry, whether in the form of a Joint Parliamentary Committee or a specialist investigation like the one that followed the Kargil war, it is instructive to read British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s statement to the Commons on October 21, 1999. “Thousands of leads from Mr Mitrokhin’s material have been followed up world-wide”, he said. “As a result our intelligence agencies in cooperation with allied Governments have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; and some names and reputations have been cleared. Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr Mitrokhin’s material worldwide as immense.”

There is absolutely no ground for believing that what is true for the West isn’t true for an India which was described by Mitrokhin as “the easiest country for KGB operatives to penetrate.” What needs to be investigated is not merely the lavish funding of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. Mitrokhin has underlined the broad contours of the subversion of India’s intelligence agencies, the diplomatic service and the media. As an emerging global power, India cannot be unmindful of the disastrous consequences of a rotten inheritance.

Is a public inquiry feasible? More important, can such an inquiry go beyond what has already been published?

The answer to both questions is a categorical Yes. Britain may have been loath to make all the details provided by Mitrokhin public but it has indicated its willingness to share, in a “proper and controlled manner”, additional information with “liaison partners”, a euphemism for intelligence agencies of friendly countries. Indeed, there is enough reason to believe that some of this information was supplied to Indian intelligence during the time the NDA was in power. If not, the British Government has kept open the possibility of sharing much more of what Mitrokhin revealed as a part of “reciprocal exchanges of information between liaison partners.” India and Britain share extremely cordial relations and there is an institutionalised arrangement of intelligence sharing. The Government cannot proceed on the a priori assumption that Britain will not oblige Indian requests for more information.

In a sense, it all depends on the UPA Government’s sincerity in pursuing an inquiry that could well show up its Left allies in very poor light. With the right measure of political will and diplomatic adroitness, The Mitrokhin Archive could pave the way for an overhaul of India’s national security.

(Published in The Telegraph, October 7, 2005)