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How India became a battleground for CIA and KGB in the 1970s

Hasan Suroor

It seemed like the entire country was on sale, says book "People in high places, including ministers, were willing to provide sensitive information to the highest bidder"

LONDON: Damaging new claims about how India became a battleground for the CIA, the U.S. spy agency, and the KGB — the erstwhile Soviet intelligence agency — in the 1970s as they competed for influence in the subcontinent are made in the second volume of The Mitrokhin Archive. The book is based on secret KGB papers smuggled into Britain by Vasili Mitrokhin, a former archivist, after the fall of the Soviet regime.

According to extracts published in The Times on Saturday, people in high places, including ministers, were willing to provide sensitive information to the highest bidder and "it seemed like the entire country was for sale."

Oleg Kalugin, who became the head of the Soviet Foreign Counter-Intelligence in 1973, is quoted as saying that on one occasion the KGB "turned down an offer from an Indian minister to provide information in return for $50,000 — on the grounds that it was already well supplied with material from Indian foreign and defence ministries."

Mr. Kalugin is reported to have remarked: "It seemed like the entire country was for sale; the KGB and the CIA had penetrated the Indian government. Neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realising their enemy would know all about it the next day."

Covert funding

The Mitrokhin Archive, Volume II: the KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, to be published by Penguin, reveals details of KGB activities in India such as covert funding of the Congress, and "individuals and media associated with the CPI [the Communist Party of India]."

It says the reason why the KGB was more successful than the CIA in buying influence was "partly because of its skill in exploiting the corruption that became endemic under Indira Gandhi's regime."

It does not make any allegation against Mrs. Gandhi personally and says she was "unlikely to have paid close attention to the dubious origin of some of the funds that went into the Congress's coffers."

"That [funding] was a matter she left largely to her principal fund-raiser Lalit Narayan Mishra who, though Mrs. Gandhi did not realise it, also accepted Soviet money. Short and obese, Mishra looked the part of the corrupt politician. Indira Gandhi, despite her own frugal lifestyle, depended on the cash he collected from various sources to finance her party.

Money also went to her son and anointed heir, Sanjay, whose misguided ambition to build an Indian popular car and become India's Henry Ford depended on government favours," says the book.

Critics are likely to seize on the claim that "suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to her [the Prime Minister's] house and one of her opponents claimed that Mrs. Gandhi did not even return the cases."

`Money was for party'

The money, it says, was meant for the party and Mrs. Gandhi was unlikely to have known its source.

Model of KGB infiltration

In his account of the extensive KGB presence in India in the 1970s, Christopher Andrew, Cambridge historian who collaborated with the late Mitrokhin, says it became "one of the largest outside the Soviet bloc" and was seen as a "model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government."

He says: "According to KGB files, by 1973 it had on its payroll ten Indian newspapers [which cannot be identified for legal reasons] as well as a press agency... India was also one of the most favourable environments for Soviet front organisations."

According to Professor Andrew, the KGB also claimed "exaggerated credit" for using its agents to influence Mrs. Gandhi to impose the Emergency in 1975. And, crucially, it failed to grasp that the "Emergency had not turned Indira Gandhi into a dictator and that she still responded to public opinion" which led her to call elections in 1977 resulting in a crushing defeat belying the KGB's "misplaced confidence" that she would win.

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