Implausible? Probably not, if you look at the evidence. Let’s get to the jail first, where Smiley, later chief of the Circus, le Carre’s name for the MI6, met Karla, then a San Francisco-based operative and eventually, Soviet spy chief. Karla, often believed to have been modelled on Markus Wolf, the East German spy chief, something le Carre has strenuously denied, was in Delhi ostensibly to meet a Tass correspondent, also a talent-spotter who had found a Chinese official to ‘turn’ and needed logistical help.
In Delhi, the Tass correspondent handed him an air-ticket to Moscow, and his new orders: he had to return immediately. As Smiley says in the novel, ‘The Indian authorities arrested him at our request and carted him off to Delhi jail. As far as I remember we had promised the Indians a piece of the product… Or perhaps we said they could have him when we’d done with him.’
The heat in the jail, as Smiley would say, was ‘appalling’, the cell having an iron table at the centre ‘and iron cattle rings let into the wall’. Karla came in handcuffed, which Smiley imagined was silly, as he was so slight and asked the jailors to free his hands. Karla, in a red tunic, had been there a week. Smiley paid off the jailor, who refused a tip, presumably because he didn’t like the English, he saw Karla looking on, a trifle amused.
So, what were the 1950s, the age of Nehruvian idealism, for India like? Think of India’s armed forces chiefs and all you’ll get are names like Lockhart and Bucher in the army, Elmhirst, Chapman and Gibbs in the air force and Hall, Parry, Pizey and Carlill in the navy. Vice Admiral Stephen Carlill was the Indian Navy chief till mid-1958, 11 years after independence. It’s hardly surprising that when the defence minister, an Indian, shot down the purchase of a light cruiser for the navy from Britain, the navy chief – a ‘Britisher’, as he wrote in a letter to Louis Mountbatten – asked Edwina Mountbatten to persuade Nehru to overrule the ministry and clear the purchase.
And cash-strapped India bought not small-arms or winter clothing that would have been required in Ladakh and NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh) in 1962 against the Chinese, but a light cruiser.
Senior bureaucrats, all capable and undoubtedly patriotic, were of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), and therefore, British-trained and part of the old boy network. ICS officers continued to be cabinet secretary till 1980 and if R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing), the external intelligence gathering organisation did not exist till the late 1960s, our blazer-and-tie espiocrats of the time, too, had strong links with their British counterparts.
And the Soviets, in the time of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and after? Till the visit by Nikita Khruschev, general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and Premier Nikolai Bulganin in 1955 for all of three weeks, would the Soviets have had much clout? Soviet weaponry, beginning with the MiG-21 began flowing in only from the 1960s. The vetos during the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis came another decade later.
India, desperately poor and underconfident after 200 years of colonial rule, may have allowed a Smiley into an Indian jail, to order jailors to take off Karla’s handcuffs and buy him American (Camel) cigarettes, particularly if they’d been promised an intelligence kickback or Karla himself. It was that kind of India, optimistic, hoping for a future away from Nato and the Warsaw Pact, but still dependent, in many ways, on the British.