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In Snowden's Wake - A PRISMatic view of India-US relations

Saurav Jha @SJha1618

Updated: June 12, 2014, 4:56 PM IST
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It came as a surprise to many Indians last year when it was publicly learnt thanks to whistle blower Edward Snowden's revelations that India was the fifth most spied upon country by the US National Security Agency's (NSA's) PRISM cyber-surveillance program. Perhaps the Indian people are a little naïve about such things, but it should certainly not have come as a surprise to the Indian establishment. The response of the Indian foreign ministry at that time however also seemed a little too naïve, given that the then Indian foreign minister seemingly sought to downplay PRISM activities targeted at India. The muted response notwithstanding, the fact is that the US is increasingly leveraging its lead in cyber affairs for geo-strategic gain and is both deepening and widening its intelligence activities in India. Given that Indian and American interests do not necessarily converge on a variety of areas the Indian establishment must make it known, perhaps even publicly, where the redlines are.

To understand the extent to which the US is increasing its intelligence footprint in India, one need only take a look at a Businessweek report from June 2013 that mentions a contractor opening listed by the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) for a senior linguist proficient in Malayalam. This job opening at the DIA is for a contractor who would have to apparently serve as a Malayalam translator in 'austere conditions' to assist American intelligence assets tracking the 'growing maoist insurgency in Kerala' as per Businessweek. Now the reliance on the private sector by the US intelligence set up is well known. Indeed even Snowden was actually an employee of Booze Allen Hamilton (BAH) working on PRISM for the NSA. For those who came late, BAH is an old consulting firm that derives almost all of its business from being a security and defence contractor for the US government, and is also the group that coined the now well-known 'string of pearls' term to describe China's apparent encirclement of India with a web of naval bases in the Indian Ocean.

Anyway, coming back to the advertisement, the reference to a 'growing maoist insurgency in Kerala' is intriguing. Now while there have been reports of maoist activities along the Kerala - Karnataka border particularly in the Brahmagiri forest reserve, would these be sufficient to merit the description of 'growing maoist insurgency in Kerala?' Of course the US intel community could always know better and that is precisely what the usual US leaning groups in India would say if they were to come across this piece information. America after all is making India's 'job easier' by 'keeping an eye' on potential trouble spots within Indian Territory. In fact, commenting on recent developments some have even ventured to suggest, that the foreign ministry's muted response was in part due to US help in cyber surveillance of terrorist activities inimical to India.

Now if one were to move away from the 'benign benefactor' model of US intel activities, it is undeniable that US agencies and the NSA in particular are at the end of the day tools for US geo-economic projection. India's emergence has made it a competitor with the US and China in the global sweepstakes, the UPA's last years notwithstanding. The NSA given its as yet unmatched cyber prowess has been 'snooping, intercepting and reading emails and other supposedly secure cyber data from India on a regular basis' and this has been known to Indian intelligence agencies since at least 2005-06. Apparently It is only later that they learnt that the name for this global cyber-snooping operation is PRISM. In any case the consolidation of the worldwide cyber - surveillance program under the term PRISM took place only in 2007 under the Bush administration.

Even if we accept the view that counter-terrorism cooperation may be an area where Indian and US interests more often converge than not, on the economic front the divergence is becoming palpable. Indo-US economic relations are at the moment fraught with a number of issues. The new US Immigration bill would of course be the most visible symbol of this dissonance. The bill in its present form as endorsed by the US Senate will essentially put paid to the outsourcing model that lies at the heart of the Indian Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) sector by driving up costs and making the movement of workers more than difficult. The Senate version of the bill is however not passing muster in the US House of Representatives and the entire of gamut of issues it clubs together will now be looked at piecemeal. Nevertheless it does show that there are significant lobbies within the US who are pushing for proposals that could hurt the Indian economic scape.

Now while the immigration bill faces pitfalls in the US legislative process, some US legislators themselves have been giving the 'jaw jaw' treatment to India. The rhetoric on India from a whole group of US lawmakers is becoming rather antagonistic especially since the Supreme Court of India struck down Novartis's patent appeal for Glivec. US lawmakers are certainly unleashing their fury on India with respect to trade, intellectual property and climate change issues. Last year, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn during a congressional hearing is reported to have said - "When you look at India's industrial policy, trade barriers, the rampant piracy, the tax discrimination and what appears to be an absolute disregard for our intellectual property rights, you realize that India is a country that is not willing to play by the rules right now". If that seems harsh sample what a Texas representative had to say during the same proceedings:

"As a nation, we should handle India like my dad did when I was growing up and I made his blood boil: He put his arm around me and or pulled me where he would go, to make sure his fingers were resting firmly on my shoulder just to inflict some pain if I diverted from the course we would go down. That's what we should do with their government."

Indeed it is this condescending attitude which also gets reflected in counter-terrorism cooperation thereby belying those who exalt US-India collaboration in the same. The late B Raman used to point out often that there was no commensurate reciprocity in India's counter terrorism relationship with the US-UK anglosphere. One incident that he publicly flagged was when he handed over the Bombay blast case files to the FBI only to see that evidence never be returned to India again.

A somewhat similar pattern can also be witnessed in the Headley case. Here is a person convicted as a key figure in the most significant mass shooter attack on Indian soil and yet India has been given only very limited access to the said person by the US. In fact the Indian attempt to extradite Headley has basically been foreclosed by the FBI agreeing to keep him on US shores as part of the plea bargain that led to his conviction. The US conduct in the Headley case cannot be considered as a confidence building measure now, can it? Moreover despite claims to the contrary it is quite clear that all the cyber surveillance in the world could not stop Headley from facilitating Mumbai 26/11. Less charitable explanations point to Headley's antecedents as a Drug Enforcement Agency operative as to why he was not apprehended in time. India perhaps can at least extradite Headley's accomplice Tahawwur Hussain Rana, since the latter has only been convicted for his involvement in the conspiracy to attack Jyllands-Posten in Denmark. But that would require the adoption of tougher posture by the Indian State.

The western hemisphere serving as a sink for those culpable of crimes in India is hardly new. The best example would be that of former RAW analyst Rabinder Singh who is known to be absconding in the US. Although 'absconding' would be a funny term to use here since Rabinder Singh married of his daughter on US soil not too long ago. Indeed Rabinder Singh serves as a symbol of direct attempts by US intel to penetrate various Indian agencies and he is now regarded by some to be some sort of an Indian Kim Philliby.

Actually the Malayalam translator recruitment move alluded to above by the DIA ostensibly to track a supposed 'maoist insurgency in Kerala' could well be a good excuse to keep track on Indian naval developments since that would be far more in keeping with the DIA's mandate. The fact is Kerala is host to a number of growing Indian naval establishments hosting some of our most significant future projects and would naturally be a draw for other naval powers.

The pivot to Asia may be about China but the two most significant navies in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for the foreseeable future will continue to be those of India and the US. While one no longer hears the routine lament from the Indian polity about the US presence in Diego Garcia, the fact is the US is today looking to expand far beyond Diego Garcia in the IOR. After having already set up a home for 2000 marines in Darwin, Australia; America is now looking for more staging grounds in the region. Till recently the US was negotiating a status of forces agreement with Maldives which is obviously a precursor to routine operations by American forces in Maldivian territory.

While there is a lot of concern about the Chinese in the region, rightly perhaps, Indians tend to overlook the inroads made by the US in South Asian countries beyond Pakistan. Whether it be Nepal or Bangladesh, the US presence is growing. The point is, India needs to clearly delineate its redlines in the region both to China and the US. The new dispensation in Delhi must give confidence to the Indian people in this regard.

The world of the 21st century is made up of both cooperation and competition. And this resonates in the contradictory remarks that emanate from various official quarters. For instance, former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is on record not once but twice of having deemed India a threat along with China. On his subsequent visit to New Delhi however he chose to dub India a 'lynchpin' in the US 'pivot to Asia.'

Now while the military-strategic component is important, ultimately it is about leveraging the global commons to preserve turf as it were. The new global commons is of course the internet and once again the US is busy exploiting its first mover advantage in this sphere for incremental gains. While the technical advantage the NSA enjoys is obviously significant, there is no denying that it has also leveraged its close working relationship with American internet majors to make PRISM a success. In fact there is discussion in the US media that the revelation of PRISM has irretrievably damaged the credibility of American IT majors. Every episode can be an opportunity. If anything PRISM and the immigration bill should serve as a wake-up call to the Indian ITES industry that the days of low hanging fruits are over. Instead of serving as a pressure point for the US in economic negotiations wherein the US holds outs a stick on India's service sector exports in a bid to secure carrots for itself on the investment and IP front, Indian ITES companies should now seriously look to move up the value chain. Sometimes the world is about running fast enough just to stay where you are.

Follow Saurav Jha on twitter @SJha1618
First Published: June 12, 2014, 4:56 PM IST

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