The Competition of Pluralities

JUSTIFYING CORRUPTION

Part 3

An agent who changes suits. We are not very far from the imagery of secret agents, of James Bonds and other Mata Haris. And there is an easy connection: the use of illegal means to obtain information. In a way, the diplomatic field of agents under cover is today at par with international public-private economies such as the aforementioned defence: in both cases, the ultimate means of the intermediary is information. And, as we know too well, the universe of agents has always been surrounded with environments of influential politicians, rich businessmen and generally illegal procedures. How cardinal is corruption when it comes to spies? A recent headline of the last three years will allow us to see how corruption is not truly located where we expect to see it.

On April 27th, 2010, the Indian news covered, once again, the outer crust of a complex affair. The Ministry of Home Affairs had caught a mole in the Embassy of India in Islamabad, an Indian agent by the name of Madhuri Gupta, who had leaked information to Pakistani counterparts. The creative analyses of the media soon tried to fill in the gaps, making of Gupta a convert Muslim or an ‘easy woman’, and a widespread blame soon fell on her. Once again, there was much more in the story. Krishn Kaushik, in his article “Team of Rivals,” argues that the leak of the information to the press was a shot of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) against the other intelligence service of the Indian government, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). 1 Both Gupta and the station chief at the embassy – whose name was also divulgated in the media – were double agents for R&AW. The existence of an underlying institutional feud was obvious from the fact that diplomatic affairs, even major ones, are generally dealt with tact and remain safely kept within the closed doors of government offices. In his investigation, Kaushik soon came to realize that the information that Gupta could disclose was disproportionately small, considering her own rank. She had basically been mused by a couple of Pakistanis – she had a relationship with one of them. But as her lack of information became evident, the latter left her, while at the same time IB started doubting her and slowly built a trap to prove her activities. Once Gupta out of the game, her informants were also left by the information agents replacing here from R&AW in the embassy – showing just as well the low quality of her interlocutors. At their level, there was a form of corruption, undoubtedly, and Kaushik briefly abridges its types: “… to knowingly, wittingly and willingly reveal secret information to an “enemy state” requires strong incentives. Money is the most common and effective motivation, another former R&AW chief told me, but “sex, blackmail, revenge and ideology are also strong players.” 2 Gupta was corrupt, but undeniably her level of illegal activities was proportional to the height of her position in the institutional infrastructure. If one counted on such spies to reveal a new face of corruption, we could not go very far. Where the corruption finds its roots, is in the larger context. And it is one, once again, of the most specific features of the modern state: the plurality of institutions.

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The plurality of institution was, in capitalist terms, productive: competition led both services to outdo themselves to provide the best information to the government. This, in itself, sufficed to cause the turf wars.

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In his article, Kaushik discusses at length the intricacy and primordiality of the business of information. Indeed, a modern state like India truly needs more updated information on the actual activities of foreign states, especially neighbouring ones, than what the official and politically correct channels of the international diplomatic circles gather. And to provide such sort of information, modern states like India form bureaus, like IB or R&AW, and it is a part of the legitimate discourse of a government to recognize organizing secret operations, which appear justified once the ultimate goal of the citizens’ security is mentioned. In other words, modern states need spies, and their activity is necessary and legitimate. But what happens when a government gains in complexity; when elections call for the formation of multiplicities within the institutions in power, in order to reach more equal results? R&AW saw the day after the 1962 India-China war, which had proved the absolute outdated methods of the IB, kept as a heritage from the British Raj. To balance the administrative slowness of operations in IB – which was set under the patronage of the home affair ministry – the R&AW was given full independence, and its head had “unchecked administrative and operational powers.” 3 Naturally, abuses soon came up and “R&AW quickly earned a reputation for nepotism, cronyism and corruption; before long it was being called the “Relatives and Associates Wing”.” 4 Since then, the two services had prolonged their vengeful stare on each other, not unlike the CIA and the FBI in the USA. The Gupta case was only the last instance of inter-services strives. In the meantime, the plurality of institution was, in capitalist terms, productive: competition led both services to outdo themselves to provide the best information to the government. This, in itself, sufficed to cause the turf wars:

“Maybe one guy is smarter than the other guy—he gets more information. The other guy doesn’t get as much, so then his boss might call up and say, ‘The other agency tells me all this is happening, but you haven’t given me a thing.’ After you get a few of these calls, you might go to the other guy’s turf to get the information next time,” 5

said a “retired high level home ministry bureaucrat” to Kaushik. Agents are pressurized by competition within their own national activities, and this would increase the possibilities of corruption, with more aggressive ‘purchase’ of information from local informants, but also, because each local information-seeking agent becomes more vulnerable. Corruption, in other words, would be magnified by institutional competition.

But what is there behind this competition, and what exactly happened through the IB’s low shots to R&AW with the 2010 Gupta affair? In the last part of his investigation, Kaushik unpacks the situation and discovers that behind the IB was the Home Affairs Ministry, and in particular its new head since 2008, P Chidambaram. As a premonition of the mole affair, Chidambaram, in the 22nd annual Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment lecture in December 2009, subtly announced his project for “A New Architecture for India’s Security,” within which the R&AW and a number other services of investigation would basically be neutralized and set back under the authority of the Home Affairs Ministry. The shot was aimed at MK Narayanan, national security adviser and home affairs competitor to Chidambaram within the current government. The former left the lecture hall… But behind this personal confrontation was a larger clash of perspectives. Narayanan was himself a defender of institutional plurality – while it arguably engendered a new sort of competitive corruption, it had also helped to fight the more classical corruption of one service or the other, as in the past.

“Narayanan felt he was entitled to keep his distance from the home ministry. “He preferred to exercise his powers from the back room,” the bureaucrat said. “When he came into the front room, he had to say yes or no; from the back room, you can do things and not be held accountable.” 6

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… this was basically a choice between classical corruption, one where the power is centred between the hands of few characters with no counter-institution to check them, and competitive corruption, or perhaps even capitalist corruption, where corruption arose in a race for effectiveness and productivity among competing services within the same government.

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In contrast, Chidambaram held a rhetoric of ‘modernization’, one based on principles of transparency, connectivity and accountability: “This was the “old way” of doing things that Chidambaram sought to sweep away while bringing the intelligence architecture under his ministry.” 7 In terms of corruption, as we mentioned above, this was basically a choice between classical corruption, one where the power is centred between the hands of few characters with no counter-institution to check them, and competitive corruption, or perhaps even capitalist corruption, where corruption arose in a race for effectiveness and productivity among competing services within the same government. And Chidambaram opted for the former.

But the crux of the corruption problem at this institutional level is to be found even deeper. The budget for both agencies is divided into two portions: the budgeted expenditures, including salaries and logistics, culminating at ₹ 10.73 billion (or ₹ 1073 crore), and the secret service funds. The fundamental problem is that the latter are not fixed, and not traceable. Of this amount, invisible in the government’s annual budget and unaudited by any authority, all the retired intelligence officials and politicians questioned by Kaushik admitted to have no clear ideas, and their wild estimates speaks for the genuine invisibility of this figure: the most modest guesses mentioned ₹ 50 billion (or ₹ 5000 crore) and the most generous reached ₹ 2 trillion (or ₹ 20 lakh crore), representing a range somewhere between 5 and 2000 times the corresponding budgeted expenditures. Whatever the figure actually is, it is big money, and one is to wonder where such amounts could be obtained (other than in corruption) and where they could be used (other than in corruption). Kaushik abridges the situation as follows:

“Both IB and R&AW, in fact, exist in a legal grey area: neither agency was created by an act of Parliament, and there is no law or statute that enumerates their powers and responsibilities, or gives constitutional sanction to their activities. The absence of a statutory basis has several consequences, but the simplest one is that it renders both agencies essentially exempt from legal and parliamentary accountability.” 8

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What is this ‘grey area’ if not the inter-space of Choudrie’s bargains with entire nations, or the political laissez-faire of Chadha’s industry?

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What is this ‘grey area’ if not the inter-space of Choudrie’s bargains with entire nations, or the political laissez-faire of Chadha’s industry? If the crux of the popular understanding of corruption is the idea of immoral and illegal economic transactions willingly conducted, haven’t we reached this stage in the most official and governmental of spheres, with the question of the funds of the two Indian information agencies? While Choudrie bypasses national tribunals by a careful juggling between at least three states, the IB and R&AW transcend their answerability before the law with the most constitutional of excuses. They represent the blind spot of the modern state, the actual heart of an excessively utopian and naïve discourse according to which human beings should live in society on the sole foundation of the human’s reason and good-will. The situation of the Indian intelligence agencies, just like the two states of affairs previously discussed, show that this perspective is as out-of-date as it could be. But one question remains. In the hope of human societies bereft of abuses, which of these two loci of corruption will disappear the first: a globalized capitalist economy leading the race of information through competition, or the bureaucratically slow and heavy governments trying to catch up, through the partitioning of no man’s lands of democratic and legal accountability, at the very core of the state infrastructure?

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References

Image courtesy: American Freedom Union

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Footnotes

  1. Krishn Kaushik, “Team of Rivals,” The Caravan, August 2012.
  2. Kaushik, “Team of Rivals,” 32.
  3. Ibid., 37.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 33.
  6. Ibid., 37.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 37.