The bigger bugging question

Why are our leaders obsessed with secrecy?


Ajay Singh | June 23, 2011

Secrecy is intrinsic to statecraft. Yet, it induces a certain degree of paranoia among even the consummate practitioners of statecraft. That is why union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee lost his cool when he was told that his office was bugged. So furious was the finance minister that he even dispatched a missive to prime minister Manmohan Singh and asked for a “secret probe”.

If one goes by India’s political history, Mukherjee does not appear to have been unreasonable. The Congress party set a precedent of pulling down a union government in 1991 on a much less serious charge than Mukherjee’s. Recall the event that led to the fall of the Chandrashekhar government propped up by Rajiv Gandhi. The presence of two Haryana police constables irked Rajiv Gandhi so much that he decided to pull the plug on the Chandrashekhar government supported by him only three months back. The ostensible reason for the action was that the union government had been spying on Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party.

In this context, Mukherjee’s anguish pales into insignificance. Being an old-timer in the Congress who once fell out with the Nehru-Gandhi family and faced near oblivion for a long time, Mukherjee knows his limitations despite his fabled number two position in this government. He is not a member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan who can bring down the government. His letter is merely an expression of deficit of trust that exists within the union council.

The entire episode as reported by the Indian Express reveals the theatre of absurd being enacted in the name of the government in New Delhi. It is no secret that competing ambitions of the two occupants of North Block, which houses the finance and home ministries, have engendered a cut-throat rivalry within the government. Just a few months ago, the North Block was plastered with posters proclaiming Mukherjee as a prospective prime minister. Insiders say that Mukherjee was livid over this indiscretion and found to his dismay that it was the handiwork of his rivals. One of his obvious rivals is home minister P Chidambaram who sits in the same building next to Mukherjee.

There are stories doing the rounds in North Block (finance ministry) as to how the revelation of the Radia tapes was calculated to coincide with the polls in Tamil Nadu. Who is interested in Tamil Nadu elections? Of course not Pranab Mukherjee? Such questions were raised by the top sleuths of the Central Board of direct Taxes (CBDT) when they faced the heat on account of leakage of the Radia tapes. They obviously alluded to the involvement of the home ministry, particularly to the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

It was hardly surprising that in such a situation of distrust and suspicion, the CBDT assigned it to a private security agency to conduct electronic-sweeping of the finance minister’s office. The private agency further heightened the minister’s paranoia when it concluded that his office, conference room and office of his close confidant were indeed attempted to be bugged in sixteen places. However, as a proof, the CBDT sleuths produced adhesives and not any bugging devices.

In normal circumstances, even a man of ordinary wisdom would have dismissed the CBDT’s surmises as a cock-and-bull story. Perhaps those aware of the intelligence functioning would testify that there is far superior technology in the IB’s armoury than using adhesives for bugging operations. But Mukherjee in his greater wisdom thought it fit to report the issue to the PM who ordered a secret probe which revealed nothing. In fact, the more serious issue than the story of bugging is the nature of secrecy that Indian rulers (top politicians) want to maintain around themselves. They feel easily violated by the issues related to their privacy which they preserve as closely guarded secret. Equally amusing is the assumption that a government or a rival minister would use bugging as a tool to rein in ambitious ministers. Perhaps for practitioners of statecraft, secrecy and privacy matter much than their open and transparent public conduct which is exposed to people’s scrutiny. That explains Mukherjee’s outrage. But here also he has merely followed the precedent set by his late leader Rajiv Gandhi.



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