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Telephone taps are de rigueur. The issue is about the kind of information being tapped, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2006 02:26 IST

Because so few educated Indians take Amar Singh seriously, there is a tendency to laugh off his allegations about telephone-tapping. And certainly, Amar Singh and his nominal boss, Mulayam Singh Yadav, have not helped matters much
by turning their protests into a tamasha. Mulayam accused Sonia Gandhi of running an ‘Italian-style Mafia’ operation and then Amar Singh sought justice-by-press conference, missing no opportunity to appear on TV.

But however comical we may find Amar Singh’s protests, the issues he raises are serious and deserve to be treated with careful consideration.

Amar Singh says that governments tap the phones of politicians — and I believe he is right. All Indian governments — whether at the Centre or in the states — routinely tap telephones. It isn’t just politicians who are the victims: journalists’ phones are also tapped.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.

In 1950, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai accused Home Minister Sardar Patel of tapping his phone. During the Congress split of 1969, members of the Congress(O) complained that Indira Gandhi was tapping their phones. During the Rajiv Gandhi era, we have it on the authority of a former IB official that not only were President Zail Singh’s phones tapped but that Rashtrapati Bhawan was also bugged.

A change of government made no difference. Chandra Shekhar accused Prime Minister V.P. Singh of tapping his phones. When Chandra Shekhar took over, his colleagues then sent policemen to keep a watch on Rajiv Gandhi at 10 Janpath and Rajiv’s phones were probably being monitored. During the BJP government, I was told that many journalists’ lines were under routine surveillance and the Congress believes that the Home Ministry kept Sonia Gandhi’s phone on the watch-list.

Nor are matters very different in the states. There was a famous telephone tapping scandal in Karnataka when R.K. Hegde was chief minister. In Tamil Nadu, we have the testimony of retired officials who say that the ADMK tapped phones of politicians.

So, take away all the Sonia-bashing and self-pitying press conferences and there’s still no doubt that Amar Singh has raised a valid point.

There are, however, two problems with any political objections to phone-tapping. The first is that everybody does it — you can’t blame any one party in isolation. It is all very well for Venkaiah Naidu to get self-righteous and complain that L.K. Advani’s phone was tapped. But politicians only moan and groan about phone-tapping when they are out of office. When they are in power, they are all quite happy to read the transcripts.

The second is that politicians don’t always get their own hands dirty. Rare is the prime minister who will instruct an official to tap a politician’s phone. What usually happens is this: the Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB), in an effort to ingratiate himself with his political masters, will offer them information about their rivals. The prime minister will not ask how this information was obtained (and if he’s not very bright, he might even believe it, despite IB’s record for passing off bazaar gossip as hard intelligence), and the DIB will not tell him. But because prime ministers like to have access to this kind of information, the IB will cheerfully tap phones to procure it.

It is easy to get moralistic about this. But the telephone tapping issue is not really about privacy — I don’t think you can compare it to somebody taking a picture of Kareena Kapoor kissing Shahid Kapoor at a restaurant. Nor is it about the principle of tapping either. All societies — democratic or otherwise — use telephone taps to obtain information.

Usually, the taps relate to national security. In the US, the NSA, which handles tapping, has a budget vastly in excess of the GDP of many small nations. In Britain, the GCHQ tapping station is at the core of the intelligence set-up. In India, hundreds of crores have been spent to set up our own NSA-type agency to monitor phone calls. All of this has widespread public support.

Nor do we protest when the police tap phones. The Bombay police’s fight against the underworld relies on extensive use of phone taps. The UP police, who pioneered the bugging of cell-phones, used technology to fight the state’s mafia (captured in last year’s Hindi film Sehr). The Delhi police busted a cocaine ring four years ago by tapping the dealer’s phone.

All this also has widespread public sanction. I doubt if anyone would like intelligence agencies or policemen to stop invading the privacy of terrorists or criminals. So the whole privacy issue — raised so often in the last week — is a red herring.

The key questions are not about privacy. They are about motives.

If the IB taps the phone of a Lashkar sympathiser, we recognise that this is related to national security. But when it taps the phone of a political opponent of the government, we reckon it has gone too far.

But, over the last few years, even this distinction has been blurred.

Let’s take the recent Cobrapost-Aaj Tak sting. This had no State sanction (let alone the kind of judicial approvals that the authorities are supposed to seek for line-tapping — but rarely bother with), and no national security implications. Nor was Aniruddha Behl fighting the international mafia.

But most of us supported the sting operation — despite the absence of any of the safeguards or traditionally acceptable motives we require for secret taping — because we believed that the ends justified the means. We argued that it was so important to reveal that MPs took money to ask questions that it was okay to make secret recordings without any kind of judicial permission or supervision.

Given our views on stings, can we then really complain about other kinds of unsanctioned tapping provided they end up revealing evidence of corruption?

The other problem about motives is that there are fewer and fewer clear-cut distinctions between politicians and crooks. In the old days, we could say that it was okay to tap the phone of a mafia figure or a man engaging in illegal activity but quite unacceptable to tap the phone of a politician.

But what happens if the politician is conducting conversations with mafia figures? If Abu Salem is talking to an MP, should the police immediately switch off their tape recorders because this would amount to spying on an MP? And if the MP has a pattern of talking to people with criminal connections — and let’s face it, the distinction between MPs and thugs narrows by the day — should he be exempt from surveillance only because he is a politician?

And it is not just mafia links. It is also corruption. Suppose the police find evidence that an industrialist intends to pay off a politician or a bureaucrat to execute some deal that will defraud the nation of hundreds of crores. What should the police do?

Politicians argue that if the industrialist is paying off some corrupt bureaucrat then, of course, the police should use the tap to find out the details and trap the bureaucrat.

But, they also add, if the man getting the pay-off is a politician, then the police should immediately switch off their tape recorders because to keep recording would be to invade the privacy of the political class.

Is this a credible distinction? Will anybody — other than a politician — believe that there should be different rules for the political class?

Which brings us back to where we started, to Amar Singh’s press conferences. As far as I can tell, his phone was tapped by a private individual with the connivance of Reliance Infocom. Amar Singh suggested on NDTV’s We The People that a corporate entity might be behind this but ran scared when it came to naming Mukesh Ambani (“It is obvious,” he mumbled.)

If this is true, then we are dealing either with a sting operation of some sort or a skirmish in the corporate war between the Ambani brothers. I am still not sure how the “Italian mafia” links come into it, unless Mukesh Ambani is a secret Italian.

Further, Mulayam says that the tapes focus on Amar Singh’s conversations with Bollywood actresses. I have known Amar Singh for a long time and I know how devoted he is to his wife. So I find it hard to believe that there could be anything improper in those conversations. And even if my old friend is an unlikely Romeo, his dashing sexploits are his own business. Nobody has the right to make such tapes public.

And knowing Amar Singh’s deep commitment to the poor of Uttar Pradesh, I am sure the tapes don’t focus on the things that would make them grounds for legitimate public interest — evidence of kickbacks, corrupt deals or conversations with underworld figures.

So, if all they contain are innocuous conversations between Amar Singh and members of his extended family then, of course, they should remain private.

There couldn’t be anything else on them, could there?

Sitaram Yechury’s column, Left Hand Drive, will appear tomorrow

First Published: Jan 12, 2006 02:26 IST