Indians are sceptical of their covert agencies. Terrorists seem to strike at will in the country. The surprises of the 1962 Chinese war and the Kargil incursion remain. In truth, the glass is half-full. Many terror attacks are prevented. Indian intelligence warned of the air-strike that began the Pakistan attack in 1965.
Anecdotally, intelligence agencies in other countries tend to find two systemic flaws in their Indian counterparts.
One is cross-checking data and connecting the dots. Indian agencies have a good reputation globally for collecting information. They are considered more spotty when it comes to doing the more arduous task of evaluating the material and weaving into something actionable. "This is the donkey work of intelligence but it's the most essential part," said a former CIA director.
Rana Banerjee, former number two of RAW, argues the central agencies, particularly the IB, are reasonably competent. "The weak link in the Indian system is the state police systems which vary markedly in competency." And it is the states which are essential in handling a homegrown terror problem like the Indian Mujahideen.
Two is an unwillingness to learn from mistakes. "It is not that Israel does not make mistakes, we all do," a former member of Israel's intelligence community said. "But we always carry out a post mortem, find out what we did wrong and correct it. I don't get the sense this is done in India." Even when India has held an inquiry, the results are kept out of the public domain so both the recommendations and whether they are ever implemented is never clear. The most recent report on intelligence reform, under the auspices of the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis, has received no official attention, notes Banerjee.
The Centre-state relationship in India, say all intelligence officials, poses a unique challenge to counter-terrorist activity. "The US's federal structure is wholly different from India's," says Banerjee which is why its homeland security model cannot be replicated here. "The Special Branch should be focussed on urban terror, but it tends to be involved in political tasks."
Ironically, political forecasting, a Mossad study once concluded, is exactly what intelligence agencies cannot do. "Leave predicting the fall of empires to academics and just go after killers," once said Uzi Arad, former head of research for Mossad. Which is the opposite of the priorities set for India's state level intelligence.