The famous ex-employee of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, Edward Snowden has barged into the budding romance between the new Indian government and the Barack Obama administration that promised to bear fruit in the fall when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Washington. The Washington Post newspaper has disclosed documents detailing that the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) targeted India’s present ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] for snooping.
Three questions arise: What really happened? Second, why it happened? Third, what is to be done?
To begin with, what happened is bizarre, to say the least. The allegation dates back to 2010 when the BJP was in the opposition. Curiously, the BJP was included amongst other parties worldwide, which included the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Amal of Lebanon, two radical organizations that Washington suspected as having dabbled with international terrorism.
The BJP is an established political party, well-rooted in the country’s democratic system and is an enthusiastic participant in constitutional rule. It has no known record of being a terrorist organization; nor does it pose threat to the US national security. Clearly, a raison d’etre was lacking for the NSA to have secretly wired into the bowels of the BJP.
In 2010 BJP was actually passing through hard times, caught up in vicious fratricidal strife in a tussle over leadership. On the contrary, the ruling party in 2010, Congress, was riding high and the government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the most ‘pro-American’ set-up in Delhi since independence in 1947. Washington knew it, too. To cap it all, by 2010 Manmohan Singh had purged India’s Left from his mainstream coalition, helping the American cause immensely. The Americans, in sum, were having a delightful run of the place in the corridors of power in Delhi and according to previous Snowden disclosures, there was scarcely anything that the Americans anyway needed to know about Manmohan Singh and his government’s inner workings – or the Congress Party bosses for that matter – thanks to the pervasive snooping by the NSA, including the electronic surveillance from the American embassy compound in Delhi.
Simply put, what happened was really bizarre. Why the BJP? How is it to be explained? First, of course, on a broad plane, there has always been the gnawing worry behind the façade of the rhetoric of US-Indian relations as to whether India could ever really be tamed and made into an ally of the US. The fact remains that despite the sustained propaganda war by the American Lobby through the post-cold war period on India’s non-aligned outlook – comprehensively debunking Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policies – Delhi has somehow clung on to its notions of ‘strategic autonomy’ in the pursuit of India’s foreign and security policies.
Consider the BJP itself. Although an unabashedly rightist and pro-American party, it too develops pricks of conscience now and then regarding Indian nationalism. A fascinating example presented itself when it was last in power (1999-2004) when top BJP ministers
gave word to Washington that India would join the ‘coalition of the willing’ that the George W. Bush administration was assembling for the US’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 – and even counseled the Indian military establishment to do some spade work – before being virtually ordered by the then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee to stand down. Vajpayee felt that such a dastardly and cynical act of participating in the American aggression against Iraq wouldn’t be in India’s national interests and militated against the grain of its own history.
But then, Vajpayee belongs to a vanishing breed – a national leader in the ‘Nehruvian’ mould – whereas, the BJP has since come a long way since his time as the great helmsman. From the US perspective, the up-and-coming young Tigers in the BJP’s leadership hierarchy held out unprecedented promise as interlocutors. This naivete became apparent recently when the American Lobby shamelessly began rooting for one particular BJP leader to be the best candidate to become finance minister in the new Modi government in preference to another seasoned BJP leader (whose credentials as an economic thinker are also formidable) because of the apprehension that the latter’s intellectual compass might be a tardy nationalistic or ‘Swadeshi’.
It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out that very high stakes are involved here for the US’ business interests in India. The US’ push to have India’s Nuclear Liability Law amended in such a way to suit the US nuclear commerce in the Indian market; opening up of the Indian retail market for Wal-Mart; getting the lion’s share in the Indian bazaar (largest in the world) for US arms exports; the bilateral investment treaty – it is nothing less than an export bonanza of dozens of billions of dollars for the languishing American economy that is at stake here.
Notably, the first top American political personality to visit Delhi after the Modi government took over in May is none other than Senator John McCain who represents the state of Arizona. While Arizona figures commonly as the ‘Valley of the Gun’ in America, it is also where some of the top American companies in the defence field are located – Raytheon Missile Systems Company, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, etc. These companies are rushing the doughty McCain to Delhi after hearing that the Modi government might be toying with the idea of allowing foreign companies to hold 100% equity in setting up defence industries in India.
In retrospect, therefore, it made sense eminently and has proved worthwhile every bit of the way for the Obama administration that it began snooping on the BJP over three years ago. The White House would be in a position today to know with extraordinary accuracy the political DNA of today’s decision-makers in Delhi.
But, from the Indian perspective, was it a good thing to have happened? Certainly, not. It is never a good thing when a foreign power penetrates a national party that commands support among one-third of the Indian electorate with the objective of maneuvering itself into a position to manipulate its leaders if and when needs arise. It cannot be a mere lapse that since the NSA’s snooping came to be known over the weekend, not a single member of the Indian cabinet has raised his (or her) voice in condemnation.
The political culture of the previous government was no different, too, apropos of Snowden disclosures. One is reminded of the three wise monkeys from ancient India who hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. This brings us to the third question: What to do?
The answer may appear deceptively simple for most democratic countries, including countries that have much closer relationship with the US than India has achieved – namely, convey their anger in the strongest possible terms at the highest level over the US’ blatant interference in their internal affairs and, second, demand iron-clad course correction by Washington by making the fulfillment of the demand a pre-condition for productive relationship.
President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil called off her scheduled visit to the US last September when it came to be known that the NSA monitored her e-mail and telephone communications with top aides and had spied on state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany dialed up Obama in the White House and in an unprecedented diplomatic snub asked him for a decent explanation for what happened when Snowden disclosures revealed widespread NSA snooping on Berlin, including her private cellphone number.
It can be said with one hundred percent certainty that the Modi government would do no such thing. In fact, the tendency seems to be to listen keenly to the footfalls of the Manmohan Singh government. Which is, of course, ironic considering that the present government had pledged ad nauseum not to emulate Manmohan Singh’s ‘passivity’ and ‘weakness’ when India’s honor – and national security – is in the crosshairs.
The heart of the matter is that the NSA and the White House today could be in possession of such explosive intelligence inputs on India’s political class that the elites cutting across party lines would prefer to play it safe and keep silent and wish that the ruckus disappeared as one among the heap of scandals that keep popping up in India incessantly. In essence, the elites are blithely transferring to the country’s public their own private sense of vulnerability to American blackmail. The ultimate damage is of course to what the elites never tire of flagging cynically as India’s ‘enlightened national interest’.