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The spy who bribed me

Last updated on: October 03, 2005 15:16 IST

Former minister Madhavrao Scindia used to joke that one reason why he wished he still had his privy purse was to put my integrity to the test. My unfailing reply that he was rich enough as it was to try it out, made no difference to a banter that comes to mind as I read of the money that changed hands according to the KGB's Vasili Mitrokhin.

Perhaps, each man has his own equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. The gifts and money mentioned in the curious case of Rattan Sehgal, the Intelligence Bureau's additional director, where no charges were ever levied and naturally nothing was proved, turned out to be conspicuously modest.

Varsha Bhosle: My country, period

Some readers might also recall the 'Scotch for secrets' scandal in Rajiv Gandhi's time when high officials supposedly sold military secrets for only a bottle of imported whisky. I also remember Mahathir Mohamed, then Malaysian prime minister, responding to allegations of a GBP 200,000 bribe for the GBP 41-million Pergau dam, with, 'Do these British think we can be bribed with only GBP 200,000?'

Of course, India was not as rich as modern Malaysia during the years that The Mitrokhin Archives II talks of. At the risk of offending people, I will also venture the suggestion that many "progressive" intellectuals who must have been high on the KGB's list cannot themselves have set their sights too high.

Not for them the mink coat — how much did the government toshakhana value it for? — that Nikita Khrushchev gave Indira Gandhi in 1955. Nor the huge sums of money — the equivalent of GBP 10 million according to one report — associated with the late Lalit Narayan Mishra.

Bribes of this order are always spoken of in terms of 'suitcases'. But my Communist friends assure me that in the old days of pro-Moscow non-alignment, card-holding Leftist Bengali intellectuals would be quite happy with a few bottles of vodka.

Obviously, they were not at the receiving end when Leonid Shebarshin, the KGB's points man for India, paid a midnight visit to Delhi's corridors of power 'bringing two million rupees as a gift from the politburo' to Mrs Gandhi's Congress. But then, this was an area of direct competition with the CIA.

KGB disinformation may have tied itself up in knots by claiming 'the United States was giving vast sums to right-wing parties and politicians' and then mistakenly bestowing a knighthood on John Freeman, the British high commissioner. But that does not mean the US was not up to what the Russians said it was.

We have it on the authority of Daniel Patrick Moynihan that his people twice funded the Congress to fight the Communists in elections in West Bengal and Kerala.

Allegations in Mitrokhin papers vague: Congress

It is as well not to forget that India was a playground for spies and that senior members of the Union Cabinet like Morarji Desai and H N Bahuguna were accused of being in the pay of either the CIA or the KGB.

According to this book, the Soviets spent 10.6 million roubles in 1975 on active measures to 'strengthen support for Mrs Gandhi and undermine her opponents'. Four years earlier, the politburo is believed to have set up a secret fund of 2.5 million roubles for 'active measures operations in India over the next four years.'

What has to be remembered is that Mrs Gandhi steered her particular political course for reasons of national and international statecraft, and not because Moscow wanted it. It just happened that her self-interest coincided with Soviet realpolitik in this part of Asia.

It should also be remembered that inducement was not always in cash. When Krishna Hutheesingh, Jawaharlal Nehru's other sister, wrote an article on the Nehrus in the Ladies Home Journal in January 1955, the Americans bought hundreds of copies of the publication for free distribution in India.

The media has always been an area of interest, and we are now told that 10 Indian newspapers and a press agency — any guesses as to the name? — were on Moscow's payroll. The Soviets also claim to have planted more than 3,500 articles in Indian newspapers. Subramanian Swamy says 343 Indian journalists were in Moscow's pay.

The Mitrokhin mystery

Reading these charges reminds me of the time when I accepted a fellow-travelling scholar's offer to write a series of articles on Communist affairs. They were ordinary analyses, but soon afterwards, another editor told me that the Soviet embassy paid the writer Rs 2,000 for each published piece.

In recalling that episode, I am also well aware that no one can beat us for imagining conspirators under every bed and maligning everyone. Both are national failings.

One must, therefore, read with a pinch of salt Mitrokhin's claim that 'it seemed like the entire country was for sale' and that neither the CIA nor the KGB could trust Indians with sensitive information which was promptly disclosed to the other side.

I much prefer that other story about Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, complaining to Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, that people were accusing him of selling out to foreigners. 'Who would want to buy this country anyway?' Rao wryly retorted.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray