(First appeared on January 02, 2021)
For any intelligence operative, Modi’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has a rather asymmetric presence on the internet. Just search his name on YouTube and you get a huge number of videos. The whole thing has a whiff of a wheeze, of one giant grift. As if a con artist is trying to con you. That is because you will hardly ever find a spymaster bragging about his work and his plans on record and so openly.
As a consequence, many lethargic media-persons, like yours truly, have used his words to try to expose India’s current hegemonic designs. In one particular video, he brags about staying and operating undercover in Pakistan for seven years. And in many other clips, he makes it plain what he thinks of Pakistan and how it deserves to be treated.
Since Modi’s rise to power, lady luck has truly smiled on Doval and he rose to new heights of power. Does that mean his grift has worked? Well, yes and no. As a keen observer of these developments, I have a firm belief that institutions and not individuals are usually responsible for the success or failure of any policy. When individuals are given too much credit for any achievement they are usually being treated as the mascot. The likely reason why Modi keeps rewarding this man with more power is that just before the 2014 elections he made a passionate case for 10 years of Modiraj to the intelligence community. This and also the fact that he must function as a conduit to the intelligence community.
I would have called him a conman but for a picture of his taken at Kandahar airport during the 1999 hostage crisis of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 which still exists on the internet. At least, the man was acting as a high profile hostage negotiator at the time. Indian intelligence officials are known to take themselves too seriously even after retirement and over the years many key appointments have been subpar. Take the example of one Vikram Sood, another man whose internet footprint is larger than any of his accomplishments when he was truly in the know. Mr Sood, a career employee of the Indian postal service, was probably tapped to head India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) as a message to the intelligence community: that the function of their boss was that of a postman. But now hear him speak and you might be led to believe that there never was anyone more important than he. So, I wouldn’t put it past Mr Doval to pad his CV a bit. But if it is an elaborate grift, it has worked for him.
What I find surprising is not Doval’s claim of serving as a spy in Pakistan for seven years. It is a matter of routine. Pakistan already has Kulbhushan Jadhav in its custody. Mohanlal Bhaskar has even written an autobiographical account called, An Indian Spy in Pakistan. This doesn’t surprise me at all. What I find shocking is a total absence of any evidence to support that Doval ever worked in Pakistan. I have badgered more than one former spymaster in Pakistan and despite their best efforts, they could not recall anything about the man. This would either mean he is lying or that he is good at his job. I do not think he is lying about being here even though the claim about seven years is obviously an exaggeration. There might be another explanation. You may not notice anything if you are programmed not to. The India-Pakistan hostility is not new and Pakistan is only recovering from the huge structural damage it sustained during the two decades of fighting terror on its land. If, in a moment of weakness, a tiny part of your counterintelligence apparatus got contaminated it would work hard to ensure you do not notice further damage. And that is just one example. From the early 1970s to this day, Pakistan has been through way too many crises. Plenty of opportunities then.
Before I write any further let me reiterate two crucial opinions which are often lost to anyone reading my critique of the incumbent Indian government. One, I am not your garden variety India hater. Far from it. It has been my long-held belief that if India stops these mind games and seriously tries to engage in honest dialogue, not just peace but a potential alliance can be built. Two, even when I focus on these mind games I do not for one minute absolve Pakistanis of their responsibilities or agency. I believe it is the job of an enemy to exploit your weaknesses. It is your job not to let it get away with it. And if you fail it is your failure. I highlight these issues just to ensure no one falls asleep at the wheel.
My problem with Doval’s rise is that he is a relic of broken age. His view and that of the community he represents borders pathological hatred. This worldview believes in punishing you for the omissions and commissions of your forefathers. They are not ready to believe that a crisis like the one Pakistan endured for the past 20 years can profoundly change a nation’s DNA. The idea that this country now wants to coexist with its neighbours in harmony cannot penetrate the hardened layers of hate in their minds.
When pathological hatred mixes with unlimited ambition it can do lasting damage to your personality. Consequently, India has changed dramatically before our eyes. Today, it can hardly call itself a democracy or a secular polity. As majoritarianism gets emboldened and populism tastes blood, the Hindutva rule destroys India’s social fabric by attacking each vulnerable group one by one. And in an India still struggling with poverty and inequity there is no dearth of vulnerabilities. So what do you do if you call yourself a patriot and yet have become a tool to legitimise such a nasty government? You double down on convincing yourself and the world that your penitent neighbour is just as hopeless as you are. When you have done enough homework and have enough influence within your enemy’s house you invest heavily in frustrating all attempts at recovery. As someone who considers himself as a good wisher of India, I do not understand this desire to see someone else suffer. Is it that difficult to look in the mirror, see what you have become, realise you have made some rotten choices, and atone for them? Why cause so much pain and suffering just to keep lying to yourself?