‘He’s an agent. I’m not’ – The games Indian and Pakistani politicians play

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Ek Tha Tiger is one of the more whimsical manifestations of the near-obsession that Indians and Pakistanis have with infiltrators and agents. Indians like to imagine their agents as Salman Khan, the alpha-male with bulging biceps – bulging everything, really – ready to save the girl, India, and let’s be frank here, the world entire. In the recent movie Waar, Pakistan dipped its own feet in the world that Jason Bourne inhabits. Katrina Kaif, the sexy, seductive Pakistani agent called Zoya in Ek Tha Tiger transformed into Meesha Shafi, the sexy, seductive Indian agent called Zoya in Waar. This is the world of ‘surgical’ strikes, top-notch intelligence and lots of leather. Reality, however, may be closer to another fictional universe.

In Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, two intelligence agents always followed the protagonist, Ka, wherever he went in the fictionalized frontier town of Kars. These intelligence agents were old and decrepit, wheezing and coughing; at one point they asked Ka to slow down so that they could catch their breath after being so exhausted from tailing him. The shadowy world of espionage makes it difficult to surmise whether our agents are from Bollywood or Orhan Pamuk novels, but what is true is that nothing captivates the nationalist imagination like the idea that we’re caught up in a lethal, faceless shadow war.

Because the aim could be anything from the mundane change in trade policy to the more exciting nuclear annihilation of Islamabad or New Delhi; because the agent could be anybody; because the target could range from something as specific as a military installation to something as vague as the ‘moral backbone’ of the country – the shadow war is perpetual, and it consumes everyone. Which is what feeds into paranoia. To say benign things like “Secularism should be promoted in Pakistan” or “Muslims suffer many hardships in India” becomes a cog in a grand plan of ‘Indianisation’ or ‘Pakistanisation’. Innocuous things like supporting the Pakistan cricket team in India becomes an insidious act of treason. Any Pakistani liberal on Twitter can tell you about the sheer volume of lifafas that they allegedly receive from agencies like RAW, Mossad or the CIA just for expressing their views.

When I was in India, politically savvy Indians would always approach me and say “Tell me honestly, the ISI did it, right?” The ‘it’ could be anything from stalling on the Most Favoured Nation status that Pakistan has still not granted to India to 26/11. What makes this skepticism difficult to dismiss is that in the face of absolutely no credible information, no one really knows – not even intelligence officials themselves. This leaves a wide open space for anyone to be called an agent for any reason – as Arvind Kejriwal is finding out at his expense. Calling someone an agent is useful for many reasons. Almost by definition, the accuser – Modi, in this case – does not have to substantiate it; it is only those people that deny being agents that are actually agents.

Second, the agent is the antithesis of a nationalist; so calling someone an agent plays the dual role of reaffirming the accuser as the nationalist, and the accused as the ghaddar. Third, it leaves to the imagination the myriad ways in which the agent is conducting his treacherous agenda. Kejriwal might be biding his time until reaching prime ministership when he hands the keys of New Delhi to the ISI. He might be conducting a slow, step-by-step brainwashing plan; he might be giving vital information to Pakistan as he conducts his campaign. The possibilities are literally endless; the substance, zero.

Even when the Indian government does have credible evidence for any Pakistani tomfoolery, they are loath to share it, fearing the exposure of their own clandestine activities. So India can insist on Pakistan’s hand in 26/11 as much it does, but without the public availability of any evidence, Pakistanis will continue to believe it was an Indian inside job. For this reason, it will help both countries to have greater transparency in the way they conduct statecraft. This would counter-intuitively mean less secrecy in the secret services, but it would also mean a more informed and less skeptical public. This also requires a certain level of maturity from politicians. Rather than campaigning on their chest measurements, or deriding others for their perceived ‘impotence’ it might be better to talk about the issues at hand.

Let me be clear, that isn’t to say that the subject should be changed. Pakistan is an important topic to discuss for Indians, especially come election time. Indian politicians must convince voters that their policy is worth supporting, but that hardly implies that a debate over Pakistan be reduced to “he’s an agent. I’m not”. We might as well tie Kejriwal to a stake and call him a witch for all the good that will do. Conspiracy theories, regardless of whether they are true or not, imply that anything that is spoken is not to be taken as the truth. If they overwhelm political discourse, then nothing we say is the truth. And when nothing is true, then there’s really nothing to talk about.

When everyone who speaks to us is lying, and then there isn’t any choice but to retreat into the sanctity of our own minds. We become disillusioned, distrustful, scared. Whether it’s the Salem witch-trials of the 17th century, or McCarthyism of the 20th century, it is the state of hyper-nationalistic paranoia that governments prefer we inhabit. Unfortunately for South Asia, the plan is working so far.