Vikram Sood, the former chief of R&AW, is a man of few words. Yet, his clarity of vision and intellect become evident from even a few carefully chosen words. In his recent book The Unending Game, Sood had deconstructed the mysterious world of spies and made a strong case for reforms in India’s external intelligence wing — freeing it from the tyranny of bureaucracy. On the sidelines of the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, Sood took a few questions from Firstpost on the reforms process in R&AW and a range of other topics. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What’s your take on the reforms process at R&AW, something you advise quite strongly in your book The Unending Game?
A. We are in this state because all the reforms that have been carried out have been superficial in nature. We don’t need tinkering, but an approach from bottom upwards — where your recruitment is different, your career span is not dependent on other individuals in the central secretariat or other services. Why should it be pegged to them? R&AW officers are not in competition with anybody else’s post. So, the intelligence agencies should not be linked in their career graphs to the rest of the service. Right now, it’s like… "oh, he has put in 16-18 years, but none of the IAS officers have been promoted, so we won’t promote him either."
Q. Would you say R&AW has become a more professional unit over the years?
A. I left the organisation 15 years ago (Sood retired in March 2003). In one's mental frame, one tends to think that ‘my days were the best’. That is a fallacy. I don’t think the organisation is going down. It is as much up or as much down as the rest of the institutions.
Q. Is the stalling of reforms process a structural issue, or an institutional problem?
A. I think it is more of a bureaucratic problem. The bureaucracy doesn’t want to give up control.
Q. Does it not depend on the political will of the government in power?
A. It is political will and also professional will. If the professional will is to keep control, then it is one thing. And if the professional will is to make it better, then it is another. You can improve without keeping it under control all the time. The mindset of control dominates in India. The army may say, ‘give me that unit, why should it be under the R&AW? We will control it’. Others want to control the ARC (Aviation Research Centre — India’s premier imaging-intelligence organisation — was part of the R&AW. In 2015, The Indian Express had reported that ARC will be shut down and its assets will go to NTRO and the IAF). This grab and control is normal.
Q. How much autonomy should an organisation such as the R&AW enjoy?
A. There are two aspects in this. If the chief of the organisation and the chief of the country are on the same wavelength, then you have clearly identified your foreign policy goals. There is one action to be taken by the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) and others. Then there’s the other covert and clandestine action, which is the job of the agency. So, the understanding should be such that I as the chief will not do anything that I do not think you will approve. I will not even think about it. But I will do things within the policy framework, with or without specific approval. If need be I may take approval — for instance, if there’s a political fallout. So, a mutual understanding between the chief of intelligence and the chief of government is very necessary.
Q. But that also depends on personal equations, doesn’t it?
A. That depends firstly on the personal equation and secondly, the attitude of the government. Some premiers have had no interest (in strengthening the institution). Some prime ministers had limited interest. You need to be able to want that thing. If that equation is missing, then obviously things don’t fall apart. Things continue. Intelligence organisations continue to get intel. But then, you don’t try new things. Some prime ministers have been quite active and enthusiastic. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for instance. The problem with some of our political leaders is that they think once you start a peace dialogue, then all other activities must stop. In fact, peace time is the time that you have you make the pitch.
Q. Let’s shift our focus a little and talk about the Kartarpur Corridor. Did India do the right thing in going ahead with the project?
A. Let’s ask you something instead. Why have all Opposition parties said ‘yes’ to the new 10 percent quota bill? Because they cannot to oppose it. How can you oppose Kartarpur? You’ll annoy the Sikhs. Pakistan may obviously exploit the vulnerability. My objection is to the imagery you create. The optics are bad. Let Navjot Singh Sidhu schmooze with Imran Khan. Why send the ministers at an event where Khalistani elements were present?
Q. What’s your take on Imran?
A. He’s not very sharp. He has no gameplan. He has become the prime minister. Now he will be used. His accented English, upbringing, the fact that he had an English wife. He is more acceptable to the West. First opportunity they will come jumping. They (military-intelligence complex) will play it safe. Let him get all the money that he wants.
Q. What should be India’s response to Imran when he talks about peace but isn’t ready to address the core issue of terrorism?
A. Imran says India doesn’t reciprocate my offer of talks. I say that we should reciprocate his attitude of terror with terror. How do you make a man understand something? What are the means of getting a message across? You apply pressure. If that doesn’t work, then you increase the pressure. The Americans keep doing it all the time. No country will defend you unless you are prepared to take a chance for yourself.
Q. Final question on Kulbhushan Jadhav who is still in Pakistan’s custody. Do you think Islamabad has leverage over us?
A. Absolutely not. Pakistan has no leverage over us on Jadhav. No spy worth his salt will be caught with his passport. The charges against him are laughable.
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 19:52:11 IST