Last week’s leak of an Intelligence Bureau report slamming foreign-funded non-governmental organisations for retarding India’s development ought to generate concern about the capabilities and sense of balance of those charged with defending the republic. Liberally plagiarising from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches, the report alleges that a “significant number of Indian NGOs funded by donors based in US, UK, Germany and Netherlands have been noticed to be using people-centric issues to create an environment, which lends itself to stalling development projects.” It argues that NGO interventions led, among other things, to the scrapping of Posco’s steel plant project and the Vedanta bauxite project in Orissa, dams in Arunachal Pradesh, and research into genetically-modified plants — supposedly shaving 2 per cent to 3 per cent off India’s Gross Domestic Product. Leaving aside the dubious arithmetic underlying this claim, the more worrying fact is that the report happily elides over Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s role in agitating against bauxite mining in Odisha, or former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh’s opposition to genetically-modified crops. Nor can it be the Intelligence Bureau’s case that it is illegitimate to seek to mobilise people around causes, the stuff of democracy. There can of course be two opinions on the wisdom of the politics of Greenpeace or other NGOs, but it is significant that the Intelligence Bureau did not find any criminal wrong-doing.
The larger issue, though, isn’t incompetent spies: it is the dysfunctional role of the intelligence services in our republic. In the decades after Independence, successive Prime Ministers turned the Intelligence Bureau into a kind of private detective service for the government, charging it with surveilling everything from political opponents to routine economic activity. The Intelligence Bureau — often with little domain competence — weighs in on everything from the appointment of judges to the credentials of business houses. In most developed democracies, the law would render such activities illegal. In India, though, there are no laws — and no major party is committed to enacting one. Though politicians when out of office routinely rail against the Intelligence Bureau’s political espionage, they discover its advantages once seated on the throne. This has had a demonstrable cost: even though the Intelligence Bureau is a third below its sanctioned strength, the vast majority of its personnel are committed to duties of dubious relevance to national security. The Intelligence Bureau is charged with the defence of the republic, not with the defence of the policies and interests of whoever is in office. It is time for law to guide the intelligence services’ work, not Caesar.