The new chief of India's external intelligence agency will have the daunting challenge of rebuilding the morale within the agency and prepare for more complex challenges following the Mumbai attacks. Photo shows Indian security forces after a three-day battle with gunmen who attacked Mumbai hotels, a hospital and railway station that left more than 160 killed and hundreds injured in November 2008. (
KC Verma has taken up the reigns as the head of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). This comes after one of the most protracted and controversial contests to succeed Ashok Chaturvedi, who during his two year tenure as head of RAW, has blighted the agency with personality cults, corruption, scandals, intelligence failures and allegations of sexual harassment of female colleagues. It had been widely expected that P.V. Kumar from the southern state of Kerala was the likely candidate to replace Chaturvedi. Kumar, the No. 2 in the organization, is the senior China expert within RAW and is fluent in Mandarin and had stints in Hong Kong and Beijing. The Cabinet Committee on appointments that was vetting the prospective candidates had sent a written recommendation to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) endorsing Kumar. It appeared that his appointment as head of RAW was going to be announced before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to have a heart by-pass operation on Jan. 24, 2009.
However, just prior to Singh being admitted to hospital, Chaturvedi had sent a very critical and deliberately misleading confidential report to the PMO tarnishing Kumar's reputation and permanently sabotaging his chances. The PMO then sent back the file to the vetting panel for a reappraisal.
Controversially, Kumar was not given any recourse to challenge and rebut the unsubstantiated and false allegations that Chaturvedi had made against him. The same scenario repeated itself for another candidate, Rana Banerjee, the No. 3 in the organization, who had a particularly tortuous relationship with Chaturvedi.
With Kumar and Banerjee torpedoed out of the reckoning the, path was clear for Sanjiv Tripathi, the No. 4 in the organization, to succeed Chaturvedi. Tripathi is currently the head of the Aviation Research Center (ARC), a parallel organization within RAW involved in aerial surveillance as well as imagery and signals intelligence. Tripathi is widely known as a close friend and ally of Chaturvedi and has often been described as his protégé. Chaturvedi would bring Tripathi to every meeting he attended and asked him to look over sensitive dossiers. The Indian intelligence community ironically dubbed Chaturvedi and Tripathi "Dumb and Dumber."
As the head of the ARC, Tripathi allowed his mentor Chaturvedi and his wife Asha unofficial use of helicopters to travel on private visits to temples around India such as in Tarapith, West Bengal. The fact that the head of an intelligence organization was using government transportation for personal trips has raised a number of questions, particularly in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 when the National Security Guards (NSG), India's rapid reaction commando unit, took some nine hours to reach the city because they had no dedicated aircraft for their operations.
Like in the case of Chaturvedi, family was a very important asset for Tripathi. His father-in-law G.S. Bajpai, a former head of RAW, openly and actively campaigned for him by meeting with senior politicians and bureaucrats. Chaturvedi also shamelessly lobbied extensively for his protégé. He even took Tripathi on two separate occasions to meet with Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party and often viewed as the de-facto power behind Manmohan Singh.
For Chaturvedi it was essential that Tripathi replaced him for a number of reasons. During his two years in charge of RAW, he used his position to antagonize, intimidate and ostracize his colleagues. Prior to taking over as RAW chief, Chaturvedi and Tripathi had compiled a hit list of everyone in the organization they planned to target. They started a personal vendetta by removing the security benefits of three former RAW chiefs who they held a grudge against. Chaturvedi then sacked canteen workers and drivers that had been employed by the former chiefs. Even the gardener who mowed the lawn at the official residence of the RAW chief was dismissed. Anybody associated with his perceived rivals was either forced to resign, demoted or given degrading assignments.
Chaturvedi created an environment that was bitter and highly negative. Morale plummeted and the intelligence gathering mechanisms that had taken years to create were systematically dismantled. As a result, RAW became a totally ineffective organization which helped to explain why there were more intelligence failures and terrorist attacks during Chaturvedi's reign than in the careers of the previous sixteen former heads of RAW combined.
To make matters worse, the ex-spy chief has become embroiled in the scandal involving Nisha Bhatia, a female RAW employee who in August 2008, tried to commit suicide outside the PMO because of repeated sexual harassment she had to endure by her male colleagues, including Chaturvedi. Subsequently, Bhatia filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him. The government subsequently formed a three-member committee to investigate the allegation which is still on-going. However, the legitimacy of the inquiry has come into question as one of the committee members, VN Mathur, is a close friend of Chaturvedi. But as the ex-RAW chief is now a civilian, he will have to fight the allegations of sexual harassment at his own expense as the government will no longer be protecting him.
Chaturvedi has also been implicated in a number of irregularities with serious allegations of RAW's budget allocations being diverted to unproductive areas for the personal benefit of his family and friends. Chaturvedi realized that he had made himself deeply unpopular and had a lot of skeletons he would not want uncovered. He needed Tripathi to be in a position to protect him from any potential retribution. However, Chaturvedi's plan of Tripathi succeeding him completely backfired as his protégé was clearly identified as being his "boy." In addition, Tripathi was already tainted by his conduct and "business activities" when he was based in Mauritius, and therefore his application to become the head of RAW was rejected outright.
The appointments committee instead endorsed the Home Minister, P. Chidambaram's recommendation of KC Verma as head of RAW, who, unlike the other three candidates, was not already in the spy agency. There had been surprise in some quarters that the government would choose an outsider, but as exclusively reported by the Middle East Times last Nov. 27, Verma was always regarded as a possible contender for the top job.
Verma hails from Agra, Uttar Pradesh and has three decades of experience with the domestic spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau. Unlike Chaturvedi, Verma is an educated man having studied at the prestigious Mayo College and St. Stephens College. After his time in the IB, Verma became head of the Narcotics Control Bureau in 2005 before being elevated as Secretary (Security) in the Cabinet Secretariat. After the Mumbai attacks, Chidambaram assigned him the additional responsibility of being his Internal Security Adviser.
At his farewell dinner, Chaturvedi arrived with four bodyguards amid rumors that shoes would be thrown at him in a scene resembling the incident involving George W. Bush's visit to Baghdad when he narrowly averted two shoes aimed in his direction by an Iraqi journalist. Over 2,000 people were invited but only 300 turned up. In a final toast to his departing boss, Banerjee gave a scathing overview of Chaturvedi's tenure, describing morale at an all time low and office backstabbing was the order of the day. He concluded by stating that RAW had been left in a shambles by Chaturvedi. Amusingly, Chaturvedi appeared oblivious to Banerjee's stinging indictment and read a 20-minute pre-prepared speech describing his time at RAW as a "glorious innings." Most people wanted to leave when Chaturvedi took to the podium but he ordered the gates of RAW's building to be shut till after the event was over.
Although it appears that the Chaturvedi reign is over, there is the possibility for a sequel. At Chaturvedi's dinner Tripathi was disconsolate that he would not be succeeding his mentor. However, Chaturvedi was overheard reassuring his protégé that he could yet eventually become RAW chief. He advised Tripathi to transfer back to RAW from the ARC and position himself close to Verma. He also said that when Kumar and Banerjee retire within the first half of 2009, Tripathi will be the No.2 in the organization, and should Verma suffer any health problems, Tripathi would be elevated as the de-facto chief. This macabre assessment of Chaturvedi's is based on the fact that Verma does suffer from cardiac problems and had to have a heart by-pass operation in 2008. In addition, Tripathi is not due to retire until December 2010. His father-in-law, Bajpai, has said that he will try to ensure that the government only gives Verma a 23-month tenure as RAW chief to ensure that Tripathi succeeds him regardless of any health concerns. This may be more possible if the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, a close friend of Bajpai's, does well in the upcoming general elections where she may become a key power broker. It therefore remains worrying that the Chaturvedi-Tripathi-Bajpai nexus is still trying to pull the strings within RAW.
Verma will be tasked with the daunting challenge of rebuilding the morale within the agency, enhance its intelligence gathering and to prepare the agency for more complex security challenges following the Mumbai attacks. As the intelligence agency moves to a new era it is very clear that the much despised Chaturvedi will not be missed. He will be trying to pursue his goal of becoming a governor of a state; however, it remains unclear as to which if any state wants a man so badly tainted with allegations of corruption, nepotism and sexual harassment.