Loose lips sink ships

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi, the defence minister of India, Manohar Parrikar, made a rather zany proclamation. Some Prime Ministers, he said, had compromised the country’s “deep assets”. He further decreed that he would not name the former Prime Ministers though “many people know”.

Fourteen Prime Ministers have served India 1947 onwards. Notwithstanding the partisan divide, each of them has had years of public service behind them.
The defence minister’s ambivalence opened the doors and windows to a frenzied bout of speculation. The social media, where everybody and their grandmother is a broadcaster, became the arena for many hard-won reputations with years of public service behind them to be slandered with impunity. Some sections of mainstream media also reproduced the innuendo without compunction.

With one bald conjecture, Mr Parrikar bade to raise misgivings on the conduct of one or more of India’s leaders. An outraged former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda retorted, “There are only two Prime Ministers now who can react to it. Vajpayeeji is not well. I am saying, I am prepared to go through any kind of investigation or trial to see what happened during my tenure.” He went on to question the Prime Minister, stating, “It is for Prime Minister Narendra Modi now to specify the charges made by his minister and whether it is proper for him to make such remarks.”

“Deep assets” is the most deliciously woolly term. It can mean everything and nothing. Was Mr Parrikar referring to covert intelligence assets or the strategic programme? Was he alluding to the alleged lack of apex-level attention that may have bedeviled our indigenous defence programme since the Bharatiya Janata Party government recently sacked the director-general of the Defence Research and Development Organisation?

This is not the first time that BJP leaders have indulged in such sensational susurration. Way back in 2006, Jaswant Singh in his book, A Call to Honour, had alluded that there was a mole in the Prime Minister’s Office during Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime. When challenged by the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on the floor of the Upper House to reveal the name of the mole, he backtracked and was unable to substantiate the claim.

Another glaring example of such insouciance is provided by Major General V.K. Singh in his book, India’s External Intelligence. He describes how the then National Democratic Alliance government had compromised a very vital “deep communication asset” by making the conversation between Pakistan’s Army Chief Pervez Musharraf and his Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz public to prove Pakistan’s complicity in the Kargil War.

Pakistan became wise to the circumstance that the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was intercepting a particular satellite link between Beijing and Islamabad, leading to its immediate closure. Had the then NDA government handled the dissemination of information more skillfully and safeguarded the technical asset, the link would have proved to be the mother lode of information for India.

Rumours have been doing the rounds for decades now as to how the alleged indiscreet slip by a former Prime Minister compromised Indian assets in the Pakistani nuclear programme. There is yet another one which slyly insinuates that a Prime Minister ordered the winding up of ostensible covert operations in a neighbouring country.

For all you know these could just be vile lies spread by jealous rivals or even malevolent creatures for the sake of sadistic pleasure. After all, rumour unfortunately is humour in India. For the defence minister of the country to buy into these conspiracy theories is a bit of a stretch. If Mr Parrikar does have any substantive evidence, then he is duty bound to put all the facts in the public space because the subtext of his statement is portentous. He is accusing some people who have been at the helm of affairs of being virtually anti-national.

In addition to the collateral damage caused by such assertions, there are implications of such rash flippancy on India’s national security also. At a point in time when foreign direct investment caps in defence have been upped from 26 to 49 per cent, and the BJP government has promoted this initiative as the centerpiece of its “Make in India” initiative, what is the message that you are sending to countries and potential investors? That India cannot be trusted to maintain confidentiality, therefore, sensitive defence technology on which billions have been spent in research and development should not be shared with or transferred to the Indian government or companies?

The one country that India has been desperately wooing is the United States of America. US interlocutors have been privately seeking assurances that their intellectual property would be secure, not because they are scared of leaks, peeps and squeaks, but because we are generally perceived to be of a permissive ethos. Nations such as the US have been nurtured in the adage “loose lips sink ships”.

Where then does this go from here? The usual Indian attitude would lend itself to a let-it-be attitude. Given that the defence minister is relatively new to Delhi, perhaps he does not realise or understand the full import of his utterances. The other way would be to confront him on the floor of the House, just as Dr Manmohan Singh had locked horns with Jaswant Singh on the “mole” matter, and compel Mr Parrikar to either substantiate his statement or withdraw it and tender an unconditional apology.

The honour and dignity of former Prime Ministers is not a matter intrinsic to them, their families or their legacy alone. It is a matter connected with what defines us as a nation. Are we a country that cynically suspects or is skeptical of its leaders and tends to imagine that there can be no smoke without a fire? Conversely, do we as a democracy consider that we have at least over the years elected patriotic people to lead us irrespective of their politics or other shortcomings? Would it not be the appropriate thing to do, that if anyone questions the nationalism or commitment of our Prime Ministers to the nation, they must be put to the strict burden of proof?

The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle@manishtewari

( Source : dc )
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