Saturday, June 25, 2016

PV Narasimha Rao: India's Quiet PM Who Used IB To Sniff Political Turmoil


For prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, the post Babri Mosque demolition phase of Indian politics was one of the most turbulent times. ND Tiwari in Lucknow and Arjun Singh were taking pot-shots at him, in a manner which was just short of revolt.

A shrewd politician, Rao knew the significance of political intelligence. Having handled a host of portfolios in the council of ministers - especially the home ministry - Rao was adept in handling India's internal intelligence apparatus, the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

The revelation that came through in the book "Half-Lion" - about the use of the IB for collecting intelligence on political rivals - hardly came as a surprise to those aware of the functioning of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). A senior official posted in the PMO during Manmohan Singh's regime commented, "this is like saying that Rao brushed his teeth every morning."

Indeed, the metaphor is quite apt. From Jawahar Lal Nehru's time to Rao's, the chief of the IB - known as DIB (director intelligence bureau) - used to have unfettered access to the prime minister. In fact, quite often, the prime ministers' day used to begin with a morning briefing by the IB chief.

This routine is no longer strictly adhered to, ever since the government started appointing national security advisors (NSAs). But, there is no denying the fact that the post of DIB still remains very critical to the government's internal security set up.
A closer look at those who manned the post during Rao's time would be quite interesting. Former President KR Narayanan was brought in as DIB by Rajiv Gandhi, who propped up Chandra Shekhar as prime minister in 1991. Narayanan was known to be close to 10 Janpath.
When Rao became the prime minister, he let Narayanan complete his term and then brought in Maharashtra cadre IPS officer VG Vaidya as the DIB. Vaidya continued on this post till 1994, following which he was succeeded by DC Pathak for three years.
Interestingly, Vaidya is regarded close to the Sangh Parivar. Though an officer with impeccable credentials, Vaidya and his successor Pathak, were hardcore intelligence guys who steadfastly protected the IB's turf.
In the Ishrat Jahan episode, Vaidya - in his capacity as former IB chief - wrote a passionate appeal to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, requesting him to put an end to the ongoing war between the CBI and the IB.
The CBI was hell bent back then on implicating IB officials in the fake encounter case. Vaidya stood solidly behind the IB, and pointed out that such a fratricidal feud between the CBI and the IB would bring down the morale of ground operatives of the intelligence agencies.
Given the hardcore intelligence background of Vaidya and Pathak, the deployment of IB assets for political snooping cannot be discounted. However the question arises - how effective could they be?
Insiders in the IB maintain that from 1991-1996, there was no regulatory framework for tapping phone lines. The monopoly of the post and telegraph department on telephone lines made snooping very easy for the agencies, as they could bypass approval and draw a parallel line to eavesdrop on conversations.
Sources familiar with the intelligence functioning admit that eavesdropping on political rivals of the PM, and keeping tabs on their movements, fell within the domain of the IB. However, the IB used to cultivate domestic servants in rivals' home for 'humanint' (human intelligence).
The DIB's job then, primarily, was to gather this political intelligence and pass it on to the prime minister. In Rao's case, this practice was religiously followed up. Sleuths of those time admit that Rao was a patient listener to intelligence inputs, which helped him formulate his strategy.
No wonder then that Rao managed to keep the influence of 10 Janpath at bay, and steered his government in his own manner. This had caused considerable strain between the relationship of Sonia Gandhi and Rao.
Now the moot question arises - has this practice changed? Those having worked in crucial positions of the intelligence agencies maintain that though the practice continues, the methodology has changed.
With private telecom companies dominating the communication network, tapping has now become more regulated. And the DIB's role has been replaced by the NSA's in the past one decade. But, at the same time, it would be naïve to assume that the IB is not used to gather political intelligence.

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