Friday, April 22, 2011

Indira's India and the KGB - 2/2

India was also one of the most favourable environments for Soviet front organisations. From 1966 to 1986 the head of the most important of them, the World Peace Council, was the Indian Communist Romesh Chandra, who denounced “the US-dominated Nato” as “the greatest threat to peace” across the world.

By the summer of 1975 Mrs Gandhi’s suspicions of a vast conspiracy by her political opponents, aided and abetted by the CIA, had, in the opinion of her biographer Katherine Frank, grown to “something close to paranoia”. In June 1975 she persuaded the President and the Cabinet to agree to the declaration of a state of emergency. Opposition leaders were jailed or put under house arrest and media censorship introduced. Thousands of people were arrested.

Reports from the Delhi main residency claimed exaggerated credit for using its agents of influence to persuade Mrs Gandhi to declare the emergency. But, according to Leonid Shebarshin, head of the Delhi main residency from 1975, both the Centre and the Soviet leadership found it difficult to grasp that the emergency had not turned Indira Gandhi into a dictator and that she still responded to public opinion and had to deal with opposition: “On the spot, from close up, the embassy and our (intelligence) service saw all this, but for Moscow Indira became India, and India — Indira.” Reports from the Delhi residency which were critical of any aspect of her policies received a cool reception in the Centre. Shebarshin thought it unlikely that any were forwarded to Soviet leaders or the Central Committee.

Though Mrs Gandhi was fond of saying in private that states have no constant friends and enemies, only constant interests: “At times Moscow behaved as though India had given a pledge of love and loyalty to her Soviet friends.” Even the slightest hiccup in relations caused consternation. During 1975 a total of 10.6 million roubles was spent on measures in India designed to strengthen support for Mrs Gandhi and undermine her political opponents. Soviet backing was public as well as covert. In June 1976, at a time when Mrs Gandhi suffered from semi-pariah status in most of the West, she was given a hero’s welcome on a trip to the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin, however, was worried by reports of the dismissive attitude to the Soviet Union of Indira’s son, Sanjay. It was reported that one of Sanjay’s cronies was holding regular meetings with a US embassy official “in a very suspicious manner”. Soon after his mother’s return from her triumphal tour of the Soviet Union, Sanjay gave an interview in which he praised big business, denounced nationalisation and poured scorn on the Communists. By her own admission, Indira became “quite frantic ” when his comments were made public. Sanjay was persuaded to issue a “clarification” which fell well short of a retraction.

The emergency ended as suddenly as it had begun. On January 18, 1977, Mrs Gandhi announced that elections would be held in March.

Press censorship was suspended and opposition leaders released from house arrest. To ensure success, the KGB mounted a major operation involving more than 120 meetings with agents during the election campaign. Nine candidates at the elections were KGB agents. Files also identify by name 21 of the non-Communist politicians (four of them ministers) whose election campaigns were subsidised by the KGB.

Agent reports reinforced the Delhi main residency’s misplaced confidence that Indira Gandhi would secure another election victory. Reports that she faced the possibility of defeat in her constituency were largely disregarded. In the event Mrs Gandhi suffered a crushing defeat. Janata, the newly united non-Communist opposition, won 40 per cent of the vote to Mrs Gandhi’s 35 per cent. One of the KGB’s bĂȘtes noires, Morarji Desai, became Prime Minister. In Delhi, Mrs Gandhi’s downfall was celebrated with dancing in the streets.

Her relations with Moscow after she returned to power in 1980 never quite recaptured the warmth shown during her previous term in office.

Extracted from The Mitrokhin Archive, Volume II: the KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, to be published by Penguin on September 19 at £30, offer £27.

© Christopher Andrew and Estate of Vasili Mitrokhin 2005

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