If India did an Argo
After winning the Oscar for the best film, Ben Affleck’s Argo has been re-released in India. Those of us who missed watching it the first time around can do so now. As you watch the film, a gripping tale of the CIA mission to rescue six American diplomats from Tehran, the question that comes to mind is: can India pull something like this off? For those of you who have not seen the movie, here is a quick synopsis. When Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries capture the US embassy in Tehran shortly after the Islamic Revolution, CIA agent Tony Mendez creates a Hollywood film production to rescue the six American diplomats holed in at the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
Realising that it’s only a matter of time before the six are identified and taken hostage, the US government agrees to a risky proposal by Mendez: posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter Iran with the excuse of scouting locations for an upcoming science fiction movie, pick the six diplomats, pass them off as film crew at the airport, and fly out of Iran right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. After many twists and turns, all’s well that ends well, the Hollywood way.
What would happen if India were to do an Argo? The Canadians sheltered the American diplomats for a long time and were more involved with the rescue effort than the movie suggests. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and a fellow embassy employee John Sheardown — who does not appear in the film — not only helped scout the Tehran airport in advance, but also purchased the air tickets, coached the six in Canadian accent and were even responsible for setting the rescue plan in motion to begin with.
Which of India’s neighbours would be willing to do that for Indian diplomats? To be honest, Nepal and Bhutan are our best bet. But they hardly have many embassies abroad. And forget Nepal and Bhutan, none of our neighbours make films that would require scouting of locations in a remote country.
Even if one of our neighbours were to help the Indian diplomats, the Indian media would soon come to know about it. And unlike the two media organisations which agreed to the US government’s request to embargo the news about the six diplomats being holed up in the Canadian Ambassador’s house, our television news channels will first go with the ‘exclusive’ and ‘breaking’ news, and then follow it up with another ‘breaking’ story about how the government tried to suppress the story. By then, someone would have gone on a fast unto death to force the government to concede to the demands of the captors. Politics will soon take over and the rescue plan will be dead even before it is born.
Although the Carter administration actually pulled off a little victory at a time when the US seemed to be humiliatingly impotent, it kept the operation secret and never claimed any credit for the rescue operation. Till President Clinton declassified the operation, the Canadians were solely credited with bringing the six Americans out. Which Indian government will be able to resist the temptation to claim a similar victory and forego reaping its electoral rewards?
In real life, the CIA recruited colourful Hollywood personalities like Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby and Buckminster Fuller to help the movie making look legit. The film replaces them with a fictional producer Lester Siegel, a typically quirky Hollywood man. Here, Bollywood can certainly do better. There are enough colourful and quirky personalities around in Bollywood who would jump at such an opportunity from the government.
Finally, the complete Tehran rescue mission was underpinned on starting a ‘real’ Hollywood company in double quick time. That is something not possible in India. As per World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 report, India is ranked 173 (out of 185 countries) in starting a business. It takes 27 days just to register a firm in India. That duration goes up to 30 days in Mumbai. In the US, the same procedure takes six days. And unlike the Hollywood firm winding up in a day of the mission, its Indian counterpart would perhaps still be under a revival plan of the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction.
It’s not all unfortunate though that India is not like the US. Because India doesn’t make enemies like the US does. It isn’t considered ‘the Great Satan’ anywhere in the globe. Thus it is unlikely to land in a situation which needs an Argo. Thankfully so.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review