Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mountain over the Mole hill (August 6, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The media, all of us know, can be a damned nuisance at times. But what really took the biscuit was the sight of TV cameras literally following Jaswant Singh to the toilet at the launch of his controversial A Call To Honour—as if the privacy of the Maurya Sheraton’s Men’s toilet would be the right setting to divulge the name of the elusive mole.

I don’t think this column will be deemed habitually offensive for suggesting that India’s first great mole hunt, conducted in Parliament and through the media, has been anything but a monumental farce. After a fortnight’s frenetic search and oodles of whispered calumny heaped on the reputations of distinguished public servants, we are nowhere close to discovering whether or not the Americans had secured privileged access to India’s nuclear plans in 1995. Alternatively, we are yet to dispel the possibility that some dirty tricks department somewhere had successfully planted on the senior BJP leader a document whose authenticity is unverifiable.

Politically too the jury is still out over the consequences of the mole hunt. For the moment, the Congress appears to have got the upper hand after it emerged that there was a discrepancy between what Jaswant claimed in his book and what he told Parliament. There was jubilation in the Treasury benches that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a very effective intervention. Equally, there was concern in the BJP that a furtive mole hunt had diverted attention from economic mismanagement and terrorism—issues which are awkward for the UPA Government.

There are four broad conclusions to be drawn from the inconclusive mole controversy. First, that Jaswant erred by attaching inordinate significance to what is at best a clumsily drafted, non-official intelligence input. These days such inputs can be purchased by subscription over the internet or even extracted from blogsites. Jaswant compounded that folly by not being able to anticipate the political fallout of the media’s speculation game.

Secondly, the BJP did not succeed in its efforts to link the mole controversy to the ongoing furore over the nuclear deal with the US. There may be reasons to be concerned about India’s status as an independent nuclear power if the US legislature imposes extraneous conditionalities. However, this is not an inescapable conclusion from a purported letter from one think tank functionary to a former US Ambassador to India.

Thirdly, there was no seriousness on the part of the Government to use Jaswant’s revelations to review its in-house security. Beginning from its astonishing dismissal of the Mitrokhin Archive—which pointed to the KGB’s deep penetration into the political class—and extending to its nonchalance over the leaks from the National Security Council computers, the Government’s commitment to counter-espionage has been dangerously casual. It has been content scoring high-school debating points over the Opposition. To this date, for example, no legal charges have been pressed against a senior intelligence official who defected from two years ago.

The amateur mole hunt has shown that India is too casual about Intelligence. Successive governments have failed to evolve a system that combines functional autonomy with accountability. It’s a shame that the present controversy didn’t become the occasion to foster a more meaningful debate on the scope of gathering and protecting intelligence.

Finally, the mole hunt has inflicted collateral damage on the writing of contemporary history. Indian politicians are not accustomed to penning their political reminiscences. The number of revealing books on Indian politics by its practitioners does not run into double figures. Jaswant tried to initiate a welcome trend. In the process he broke the one cardinal rule governing political memoirs—they are written after retirement. This facilitates honesty, detachment and prevents the past from intruding into the present.

By trying to straddle his political responsibilities with his obligations as a chronicler, Jaswant, tragically, has fallen between two stools. Since Indian politicians don’t retire, his experience may well prove a deterrent to members of the political class sharing their past experiences so freely.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 6, 2006)

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