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Book Review | Cosy memoir spells out why trust is the secret of spycraft

By DECCAN CHRONICLE | K C Singh

9 January 2023

Rajiv Gandhi had been wrestling with a defiant President Zail Singh, the Bofors controversy, and the Arun Nehru and V.P. Singh resignations

A Life in the Shadows is an interesting memoir by A.S. Dulat, who spent the bulk of his career as an officer of the 1965 batch of the Indian Police Service in intelligence work. What defined his field work was his posting as head of the Intelligence Bureau in Jammu and Kashmir as militancy hit the state after the allegedly rigged election of 1987. Simultaneously, reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had announced in mid-1987 that they were withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The actual disengagement was initiated on February 15, 1988, and completed a year later.

Rajiv Gandhi had, meanwhile, been wrestling with a defiant President Zail Singh, the Bofors controversy, and the Arun Nehru and V.P. Singh resignations. Thus, the situation was ripe for a perfect storm, fuelled by Pakistan. Understandably, the book deals only with the way Dulat coped with it. He concedes that they were largely clueless about the sudden upsurge of militancy. He writes: “Where nobody had a clue before, now nobody was willing to talk to us.” If anything, analysts in Delhi should have seen the storm approaching as local angst combined with Pakistani support to jihad, bolstered by fighters released from the Afghan theatre. This underscores the need not only for good field intelligence but also excellent analysis and anticipation by headquarters. As the 9/11 commission in the US concluded that, while FBI had reports of several trainees from Gulf nations learning to fly planes, no one surmised they were learning to fly planes into buildings. The report concludes that it was not a lack of intelligence but that of imagination.

The book’s best parts are about Jammu and Kashmir. Farooq Abdullah is seen by Dulat as the last hope even as alienation in Kashmir Valley has reached an extreme. The author’s assessment of Ajit Doval, current national security adviser and three years his junior, is revealing. Two doctrines on how to deal with Jammu and Kashmir emerge: the Vajpayee approach which Dulat always practised and endorses, and the Narendra Modi doctrine that Doval espouses. The soft touch of A.B. Vajpayee rested on engagement and the hard approach is reflected in the abrogation of Article 370.

The author explains repeatedly that the book is a memoir as his earlier volume, The Vajpayee Years, has already dealt with the Kashmir dealings of the late Prime Minister. After demitting office of head of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Dulat was then adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office. The parts that I could immediately relate to are the ones involving Dulat’s travels abroad with President Giani Zail Singh. I was then deputy secretary to the President and alongside Dulat on every visit. Some anecdotes lack full understanding of Gianiji’s handling of foreigners. Often the President would banter with his accompanying party, but when the show began, he would perform as required.

The analysis of the terrorist attack on Parliament in 2001 also lacks the consideration of a larger context. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf was not merely piqued over failure of the Agra summit. After 9/11, he was under US pressure to seal the border with Afghanistan, across which the senior Al Qaeda leaders were fleeing to Pakistan. Any threat of military retaliation by India would give Pakistani military an excuse not to shift troops to their western frontier. The fact that Osama bin Laden was finally located living peacefully close to Pakistani military facilities confirms the duplicity.

An interesting issue discussed is why the intelligence agencies in India are always headed by policemen, who have mostly risen within those organisations. That does not happen in the West, especially the US. Incestuous inbreeding is a fine way to beget obedient agencies. It militates against an outsider with broader political experience. The best intelligence field operatives are, as the author correctly surmises, those willing to follow the uncharted path. While their tradecraft may require deception and cunning, the best spies also leave space for generating trust.

The book beautifully explains this conundrum as the author presents his career against the backdrop of his ancestry and upbringing. But one must contest his assertion that “spooks understand the depths of human nature much better than diplomats do”. Having served as ambassador one saw that, in tightly controlled states like Iran, Pakistan, China, or Russia, it becomes impossible for any intelligence operative to operate freely. The diplomats have more leeway to interact and assess developments. Ultimately, there is no substitute for good analysis based on common sense.

Considering the national security angle, there is naturally a reluctance to discuss the role of technical intelligence gathering that nowadays has assumed greater role. But the author brings out the fear and caution that chief ministers during the peak of Congress power displayed when handling the IB representative in their state. This today has worsened following allegations of even spyware being used to overhear literally round the clock the target’s conversations. I recall that President Zail Singh, as a former home minister, assumed that his study and landlines had been bugged. But this book demonstrates that, in the final analysis, the human element is important in influencing political players. Coercion, blackmail and bribery fail in the end.

A Life in the Shadows: A Memoir
By A.S. Dulat
HarperCollins India
pp. 256, Rs.699

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