The silence had been voluble. So when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally did speak on the matter of the ‘Niira Radia tapes’ on Tuesday, his attempt to allay fears of the government tapping into citizens’ private space was heard loud and clear.
Mr Singh promised to put in place measures to prevent leaks of recorded conversations into the public space and cited that while the powers granted to the government for eavesdropping on private conversations for ‘public interest’ and ‘national security’ were needed, they have to be exercised “with utmost care and under defined rules, procedures and mechanisms”.
Coming from the PM, this is comforting. But while this may have calmed certain sections of the business community, some unsavoury questions perilously hang in the air. Who, for instance, will be deciding what is the necessary ‘wheat’ and what is mere ‘chaff’ during governmental eavesdropping? Considering that there is an array of people doing the ‘listening in’ who may not share the same parameters of what defines ‘public’ and ‘private’, not to mention ‘national security’ and ‘public interest’, with the PM, one remains gravely uncertain about how an operational thick line will be drawn at the ground level.
Mr Singh also remarked on the “perceived ethical deficit” in the business practices of some corporate houses. This is a legitimate concern. But also of serious concern is the other perceived ethical deficit: that of the State and its various components directly or indirectly under the government.
The inability to keep governmental phone taps out of the ready-to-be-misused public domain has already led to a loss of confidence in the ‘protective’ State. But matters such as the ‘perceived’ wool pulled over our eyes regarding a former Chief Justice of India’s version of the truth about the involvement of a former government minister running counter with that of a high court judge erode confidence in our statutory institutions even further.
Again, the ‘perceived’ unwillingness to get to the bottom of the matter regarding the chief vigilance commissioner and his appointment leads to an ethical deficit of an entity that, by definition, should use action instead of politics to be above suspicion. The PM, we are sure, means well and means what he says. But being a leader in a sparkling white kurta does little to allay fears when he is perceived to be standing in a gutter with all kinds of detritus roaring around him.