The Kremlin spent a fortune trying to influence the press, police, ministers and Indira Gandhi.
A HUGE cache of KGB records smuggled out of Moscow after the fall of communism reveal that in the 1970s India was one of the countries most successfully penetrated by Soviet intelligence.
A number of senior KGB officers have testified that, under Indira Gandhi, India was one of their priority targets.
“We had scores of sources through the Indian Government — in intelligence, counter-intelligence, the defence and foreign ministries and the police,” said Oleg Kalugin, once the youngest general in Soviet foreign intelligence and responsible for monitoring KGB penetration abroad. India became “a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government”, he added.
Such claims have previously been ignored or brushed aside by Delhi. But the revelations from the KGB documents that form one of the biggest Western intelligence coups in recent years provide firm evidence for these claims. The records have been analysed in a new book about the KBG’s global operations, and the first extracts appear today in Times Books.
According to these top-secret records, brought to the West by Vasili Mitrokhin, a former senior archivist of the KGB, Soviet intelligence set out to exploit the corruption that became endemic under Indira Gandhi’s regime.
Despite her own frugal lifestyle, suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to the Prime Minister’s house to finance her wing of the Congress Party. One of her opponents claimed that Mrs Gandhi did not even return the suitcases.
The Prime Minister was unaware that some of the suitcases, which replenished Congress’s coffers, came from Moscow via the KGB.
Her principal fundraiser, Lalit Narayan Mishra, however, knew that he was accepting Soviet money. Short and obese with several chins, Mishra looked the part of the corrupt politician that he increasingly became. Particularly after Mrs Gandhi signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union, the KGB was anxious to do what it could to keep her in power.
The KGB “residency” in Delhi was one of the largest in the world outside the Soviet bloc, and was awarded the rare honour by the Centre (KGB HQ in Moscow) of being promoted to “main residency”.
The Indians lifted restrictions on the number of Soviet diplomats and trade officials in the country, thus allowing the KGB numerous cover positions. One of the KGB heads of political intelligence in Delhi, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, went on to head Russian foreign intelligence, became a confidant of President Putin and was appointed Russian Ambassador to Delhi last year.
The Russians were also extremely active in trying to influence Indian opinion. According to KGB files, by 1973 it had on its payroll ten Indian newspapers as well as a press agency. The previous year the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in Indian newspapers — probably more than in any other country in the non-communist world. By 1975 the number of articles it claimed to have inspired had risen to 5,510. India was also one of the most favourable environments for Soviet front organisations.
Christopher Andrew, the Cambridge historian who co-operated with Mitrokhin after his defection to Britain, says in his account of this huge operation that the KGB fatally overestimated its own influence. It also failed to anticipate the backlash against Mrs Gandhi after her imposition in 1975 of the state of emergency.
“Reports from the Delhi main residency claimed exaggerated credit for using its agents of influence to persuade Mrs Gandhi to declare the emergency,” Professor Andrew writes. “But both the Centre and the Soviet leadership found it difficult to grasp that the emergency had not turned her into a dictator and that she still responded to public opinion and had to deal with the Opposition.”
The head of the Delhi KGB admitted: “The embassy and our intelligence service saw all this, but for Moscow Indira became India, and India Indira.” Reports from the Delhi main residency that were critical of any aspect of her policies received a cool reception in the Centre and seem not to have been passed on to the Kremlin. Moscow put repeated pressure on the Communist Party of India to throw its full support behind Mrs Gandhi.
Despite spending some 10.6 million roubles (more than £10 million in old exchange rates) on influence operations to support Mrs Gandhi and undermine her opponents, Moscow did not foresee the sudden end of emergency rule. Her landslide defeat in the elections of 1977 brought Moraji Desai, one of the KGB's bêtes noires, to power, and even when Mrs Gandhi returned to office, relations with Moscow were never as close again.
In 1992 the 70-year-old Vasili Mitrokhin, his family and six large containers of KGB documents that he had secretly copied over 12 years and hidden beneath his dacha were smuggled by British intelligence out of Russia. The FBI has called the Mitrokhin archive “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source”. Mitrokhin died in Britain last year.