There was a foreign hand. But it was the KGB’s

Despite having penetrated the ‘heart of India’, the KGB didn’t achieve all that much

Using material from the Mitrokhin archives, The Times reports (via The Agonist) that the KGB had made India one of their ‘priority targets’ in the 1970s and spent a fortune trying to influence the establishment. They even sent suitcases full of money to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s official residence.

According to these top-secret records, brought to the West by Vasili Mitrokhin, a former senior archivist of the KGB, Soviet intelligence set out to exploit the corruption that became endemic under Indira Gandhi’s regime.

Despite her own frugal lifestyle, suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to the Prime Minister’s house to finance her wing of the Congress Party. One of her opponents claimed that Mrs Gandhi did not even return the suitcases.

The Prime Minister was unaware that some of the suitcases, which replenished Congress’s coffers, came from Moscow via the KGB.

Her principal fundraiser, Lalit Narayan Mishra, however, knew that he was accepting Soviet money.

The Russians were also extremely active in trying to influence Indian opinion. According to KGB files, by 1973 it had on its payroll ten Indian newspapers as well as a press agency. The previous year the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in Indian newspapers — probably more than in any other country in the non-communist world. By 1975 the number of articles it claimed to have inspired had risen to 5,510. India was also one of the most favourable environments for Soviet front organisations.[TimesOnline emphasis added]

Unfortunately for the Soviets, the people of India got in the way and chucked Indira Gandhi out. Those 5,510 articles didn’t quite turn India into a Soviet satellite.

Update: The Indian Express is onto this story.

21 thoughts on “There was a foreign hand. But it was the KGB’s”

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  2. What an amazing story. One of the (then) world’s superpowers pumps in millions, and yet, our democratic institutions have been strong enough to withstand them.

    Even if this doesn’t make you proud of India’s constitutional processes in itself (what’s with the Congress accepting cash anyway?), you’ll have to agree that we did indeed get something somewhere right.

  3. Just add this as well: I really wish some heads in the Indian press would roll after this. It’d be fascinating to see which mediapersons got paid, and for what articles, if only to understand the process of discourse dissemination in India.

  4. Dont you think there is suddenly an alarming amount of stuff on penetrations within our Intelligence or forces coming out now?

    I wonder if there is some start of trust/morale-degradation that is supposed to be effected by that?

  5. The story is interesting enough. What I find even more interesting is the reaction of Akshay above. The article says that between 3 and 5 thousand stories had been planted in the Indian press and that the prime minister had been bribed. The press and the prime minister’s office, I guess, are important democratic institutions. They were compromised. It hardly speaks to the strength of our democratic institutions.

    Now the rejoinder may be this: “Yes, but don’t you see the Indian voter, so wonderfully perceptive, immediately saw through those thousands of planted stories and recognized the corruption of the Congress decided to vote them out of office? Amazing rectitude and foresight and perspicacity of the Indian voter, isn’t it?”

    Indeed it would be, if only this were true. The average Indian voter did not read newspapers and therefore whether they contained planted fake articles or they contained the wisdom of the ancients is not material. The average Indian voter could not even know about the corruption at high levels, especially when it comes to the party of Gandhi (happily ascribing the old man’s virtues to Nehru’s children). This was so because the average Indian voter was an illiterate rural voter who was as likely to read the doctored papers as I am likely to read the Pravda–not at all likely, because I don’t read Russian.

    What scared the holy crap out of the average Indian voter was the rumor that the government of Indira Gandhi was out to castrate him. It all started with the idiot Sanjay Gandhi forcibly administering vasectomies on some hapless poor people in a misguided but well-intentioned effort to stop the population explosion. The average Indian voter, castration and vasectomies are synonymous. It was their fear of losing their gonads and being turned into eunuchs that did the trick, not some imagined resilience of India’s “democratic institution.”

    To Niraj’s comment about The Hindu being on the payroll of the KGB: did they really need KGB money given that they do have funding from Arab oil money?

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  7. Atanu: Let me just say this. *Unlike* most other countries in the region, we’ve come a long way from identifying entire nations with parties or even specific people. That, I think, is the sheer power of our democratic institutions; unlike North Korea, Burma, Bhutan, China, Pakistan and Cambodia, we’ve never lived in a totalitarian regime that controls our freedom to form our own individual opinions. That is to say, Mongolia, for instance, didn’t know about Chernobyl until it could no longer be hidden from the western world, and that too, in brief snatches; can you ever imagine such a situation in India even in the bleakest of times?

    In short, you are looking at a system that could be bribed out and out, while I look at a system that thrives *despite* that.

  8. I think we can conculsively say, that India in the time of Indira Gandhi was a complete mess, and that b*tch did all she could to ruin it even further. All of that being said, I think that this righteous indignation over the KGB having penetrated India needs to stop. I think it would be ridiculously obvious that the KGB would have penetrated India. I think it would be equally obvious that the CIA had as well. It’s just there is no American spy writing about it. If you consider Soviet Russia an ally, it would logically follow that you would be in bed with the Intelligence Service too. I am not even surprised with the depth of the penetration. Under Indira, the press was chained. Now, after all this, India has managed to come out without people having lost complete faith in the entire system.
    In fact, it is even more naive to believe that 50% of the media stories in print now, are NOT plants, and this probably holds true for the entire world.
    BTW, all democratic institutions are open to manipulation, and I’d like somebody to name a country which has somehow remained “pure” and “untouched”.Hell, half the diplomatic staff of every emabssy anywhere in the world consists of spies. I would not be surprised to find such revelations about many countries, during the Cold War period. Hurricane in a Chai ka khullar.

  9. Akshay: “*Unlike* most other countries in the region, we’ve come a long way from identifying entire nations with parties or even specific people.”

    Does “Indira is India and India is Indira” ring a bell?

    Akshay: “we’ve never lived in a totalitarian regime that controls our freedom to form our own individual opinions”

    Does “Emergency” ring bell?

    Just to make it very clear, I am arguing with you, not calling you names. So please don’t take this as a personal attack.

  10. I would like to see if we could implement a commission to go through these allegations, identify names and see if we could apply treason charges and shame against those indicted.

  11. Still living in the past are we? Akshay said “We’ve come a long way from that”. Is anybody saying Laloo is India today? While we MOVED ON from that period, the rest of the surrounding neighbourhood has not. The mistakes of that period are openly acknowledged. Is there anything being hushed up? As much as you would like to believe that it was Vasectomies that caused the Zebra to lose power, it was the very simple fact that no single dominating Will can rule 700 Million people by force, whether that Will is of a foreign power, or local. We have 2000 years of history as proof. That is why, the ONLY system that will keep India intact is a democracy. And that system is working. Nobody said it was working smoothly and efficiently. If we’re not a democracy, how else would you like to explain Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to be Prime Minister? Could it be, because that was the will of the People. How about peaceful transfer of power? Considering all of us are a bunch of feudal serfs, somehow we don’t resort to civil wars and military coups to request a change of leadership. Shiela Dikshit has done wonders for New Delhi. She was rewarded with a second term. Another fluke? And one final point about this sham democracy you keep talking about. Just bear in mind that this sham democracy lets you speak your mind, while you’re still in it, as opposed to some other places I can mention which lack a necessary requirement for Civilisation – Freedom Of Speech.

  12. Akshay and Atanu:

    I don’t doubt that the KGB had penetrated the Indian govt. (though the KGB agents may have exaggerated their reach slightly), but what did they get in return? Arguably, not much. Were there any policies, domestic or int’l, taken by India only because of Soviet influence? Again, arguably, no.

    In this sense, I concur with Akshay on the value of Indian democracy: Precisely because there are many power centers (and, yes, that was the case even during the Emergency albeit to a much lesser extent), bribes can’t buy major policy outcomes. At most, I suspect, Soviet influence merely encouraged the Indian govt. to travel somewhat farther down a road it always wanted to traverse.

    Of course, unraveling the effect of Soviet bribery will take more research but what are your thoughts on this issue?

    Kumar

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