Although the annals of the Great Game speak of the Hindu pundits who played an important supporting role in the romantic intelligence-gathering operations of the Raj, it is fair to say that independent India never quite succeeded in establishing a popular espionage mythology. Was this due to the fact India was merely a playground of the Cold War and never a player?
The Mitrokhin Archive narrates the sorry tale of nearly half of Indira Gandhi's Cabinet rushing to the Soviet embassy to peddle 'secret' documents. Some CIA papers in turn speak of a compromised cabinet minister and money poured into anti-Communist work. In both cases, India was merely a stage for a larger spy versus spy game. There are hardly any declassified documents and first-person accounts of Indian intelligence operations in a treacherous neighbourhood.
To the extent that Salman Khan glamorises, in the James Bond mould, the operatives of the Research & Analysis Wing in Ek Tha Tiger, there may be grounds for believing that India has finally filled the void. A few more muscular Bollywood interventions and we may even wallow in the patriotic myth that our RAW is the local equivalent of the CIA, MI6 and Mossad. Such a perception may even be very good for the self-esteem of the external intelligence unit that has got more than its fair share of adverse publicity.
The extent to which the robust patriotism of Ek Tha Tiger deviates from ground realities comes through in Amar Bhushan's Escape To Nowhere, an account (fictionalised to escape the Official Secrets Act) of the detection and defection of RAW's very own CIA 'mole' Rabinder Singh in 2004. As the man in charge of security in RAW, Bhushan mounted the surveillance on Singh and had to take the rap when the wily double agent used a long weekend and a purported family holiday to the hills to drive to Nepal and, with the assistance of his CIA handlers, fly to the US.
The story of RAW that emerges from this enthralling account is depressing. Far from being another "Circus" staffed by brilliant men and women who had been talent-spotted at university by dons who knew what the service needed, India has crafted RAW in its own bureaucratic image. Thus, the brilliant and the enterprising are weighed down by a system where an excess of discretionary powers has rewarded the plodder, the corrupt and the lackey . This may be the way to run the public works department but it is surely no way to protect and enhance national interests.
There is a compelling case for making the tale of Rabinder Singh into a film, if only to inject a note of realism into the system. Singh was no personification of evil or brilliance. He was dull, mediocre with low retentive powers, a taste for the good life and an over-weaning desire to be posted in the US. His modus operandi was remarkably simple: he simply photocopied every document he could lay his hands on, took them home and sent them by email to his handlers. The RAW bigwigs wanted to catch him red-handed passing 'secret' documents, quite forgetting that IT has made face-to-face contact redundant . In the technical department too, RAW isn't quite fit for purpose.
This was no battle of wits between a Smiley and a Bill Hayden. This was an exhibition match involving Inspector Clouseau and his mirror image.