A charm offensive against Mrs Gandhi, agents in the media and the government, attempts to buy influence in Congress — in the second volume of the astonishing Mitrokhin archive Christopher Andrew reveals how the KGB targeted India
INDIRA GANDHI NEVER realised that the KGB’s first prolonged contact with her occurred during her first visit to the Soviet Union, a few months after Stalin’s death in 1953. As well as keeping her under continuous surveillance, the Centre (KGB headquarters) also surrounded her with handsome, attentive male admirers. Two years later Indira accompanied her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, the inaugural Prime Minister of independent India, on his first official visit to the Soviet Union. Like Nehru, she was visibly impressed by the apparent successes of Soviet planning and economic modernisation exhibited to them in stage-managed visits to Russian factories. During her trip Khrushchev presented her with a mink coat which became one of the favourite items in her wardrobe — even though a few years earlier she had criticised the female Indian ambassador in Moscow for accepting a similar gift.
Soviet attempts to cultivate Indira Gandhi during the 1950s were motivated far more by the desire to influence her father than by any awareness of her own political potential. Moscow still underestimated her when she became Prime Minister. In her early parliamentary appearances she seemed tongue-tied and unable to think on her feet. The insulting nickname coined by a socialist MP, Dumb Doll, began to stick.
But her political genes were soon to show their worth. Following a split in the Congress Party in 1969, the Communist Party of India (CPI), encouraged by Moscow, swung its support behind her. At the elections of February 1971, Mrs Gandhi’s wing of Congress won a landslide victory.
In August she signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union. Both countries immediately issued a joint communique calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. India was able to rely on Soviet arms supplies and diplomatic support in the conflict against Pakistan which was already in the offing.
Despite diplomatic support from both the United States and China, Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat in the 14-day war with India.
For most Indians it was Mrs Gandhi’s finest hour. A Soviet diplomat at the United Nations exulted: “This is the first time in history that the United States and China have been defeated together!” In the Centre, the Indo-Soviet special relationship was also celebrated as a triumph for the KGB. The residency in Delhi was rewarded by being upgraded to the status of “main residency”. Its head from 1970 to 1975, Yakov Prokofyevich Medyanik, was accorded the title of “main resident”. In the early 1970s the KGB presence in India became one of the largest outside the Soviet bloc. Indira Gandhi placed no limit on the number of Soviet diplomats and trade officials, thus allowing the KGB and Soviet intelligence as many cover positions as they wished.
Oleg Kalugin, who became head of Foreign Counter-Intelligence in 1973, remembers India as “a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government”. He recalls one occasion when 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 the Indian foreign and defence ministries: “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.” The KGB, in Kalugin’s view, was more successful than the CIA, partly because of its skill in exploiting the corruption that became endemic under Indira Gandhi’s regime. Suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to her house and one of her opponents claimed that Mrs Gandhi did not even return the cases.
The Prime Minister is unlikely to have paid close attention to the dubious origins of some of the funds that went into Congress’s coffers. That was a matter she left largely to her principal fund-raiser, Lalit Narayan Mishra, who, though Mrs Gandhi doubtless 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.
When Mishra was assassinated in 1975, Mrs Gandhi blamed a plot involving “foreign elements” — doubtless intended as a euphemism for the CIA. The Delhi KGB residency gave his widow 70,000 rupees, though she doubtless did not realise the source. Though there were some complaints from the Communist leadership at the use of Soviet funds to support Mrs Gandhi, covert funding for the Congress Party of India seems to have been unaffected. By 1972 the import-export business founded by the CPI to trade with the Soviet Union had contributed more than 10 million rupees to party funds. Other secret subsidies, totalling at least 1.5 million rupees, had gone to state Communist parties, individuals and media associated with the CPI. The funds that were sent from Moscow to party headquarters via the KGB were larger still. In the first half of 1975 they amounted to over 2.5 million rupees.
India under Mrs Gandhi was probably the arena for more KGB active measures than anywhere else, though their significance appears to have been considerably exaggerated by the Centre, which overestimated its ability to manipulate Indian opinion.
()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. During 1972 the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in Indian papers