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There’s someone listening

Since our distaste for politicians is so palpable, I doubt if any tears will be shed for Amar Singh now that the Supreme Court has lifted a ban on the airing of his phone conversations. Namita Bhandare writes.

india Updated: May 13, 2011 23:20 IST

Since our distaste for politicians is so palpable, I doubt if any tears will be shed for Amar Singh now that the Supreme Court has lifted a ban on the airing of his phone conversations.

The conversations with Bollywood actresses, politicians, businessmen and actresses-turned-politicians aren’t new. Transcripts of these first made the rounds four years ago.

Now, they are open to public scrutiny and will no doubt make headlines again: what Singh allegedly said to which actress and which former leading lady giggled coyly about getting her legs waxed.

Many conversations being played reveal how Singh, then a general secretary with the Samajwadi Party, and his former boss, Mulayam Singh Yadav apparently operated. Certainly citizens have a right to know whether their elected representatives engage in talks about fixing judges and sugar prices in the states they run.

Conversations about deal-making and subverting public policy are overwhelmingly in the public interest. Yet, are we ignoring larger questions?

The question is how do we get this information, and do the ends justify the means? The question is whether those in public life are entitled to private conversations, and where do we draw the line between public and private?

The question is whether a democratic system can permit illegal tappings of phone conversations, or the extent to which official tappings are liable to be misused.

These questions become even more relevant given technological advances and the relative ease with which private phone calls — and email and chat — can be monitored. These questions become relevant in the light of growing national security concerns.

They become relevant in the backdrop of bitter corporate wars with politicians increasingly taking sides.

These questions were already in the public domain, revived now with the filing of a petition by Ratan Tata who says the publication of conversations between him and Tata Group’s publicist Niira Radia violate his fundamental right to privacy.

Singh’s phone conversations were illegally recorded; Radia’s phone tap had the sanction of income tax authorities (the selective leaks by an unknown source were, obviously, illegal).

Yet, both trawl grey areas: if the information obtained from these conversations provides clinching information about how democratic institutions are being subverted, then what is wrong with publishing them?

Plenty. Telephone tapping is a tricky issue. Under the 126-year-old Indian Telegraph Act, the government is authorised to intercept messages in the ‘public interest’; no court warrant is required.

A recent India Today cover story made the startling claim that a million mobile phones across service providers are under surveillance; the government figure is 6,000 phones in New Delhi alone.

Are we to believe that one million Indians are involved in terrorism, narcotics, arms-dealing, money laundering — all legitimate reasons to get bugged?

The powers of government to authorise taps are sweeping and can be open to abuse, often covering political opponents and other ‘inconvenient’ people: as far back as 1988, Ramakrishna Hegde was forced to step down as Karnataka chief minister after opposition MLAs said their phones were tapped.

Yet, as a society we do not seem to be unduly moved by the individual’s right to privacy. Perhaps we are genetically coded to accept the greater good, the larger interests of the joint family.

Or perhaps we just enjoy the salaciousness of private conversations out in the open. Even now, nobody is writing Mulayam Singh Yadav’s political obituary.

Revelations of fixing will have little or no impact on his political fortunes.

The irony of the Amar Singh phone tap story is not lost. As lawyer Prashant Bhushan hailed the Supreme Court judgement saying: “People of the country are entitled to know how their MPs behave,” few had forgotten the infamous CD — allegedly of a conversation between Shanti Bhushan and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a conversation that the Bhushans insist never took place because the CD is forged.

After being dismissed by the Supreme Court for filing a petition described variously as frivolous, speculative, strange, weak, Singh seemed to have learned one lesson from the Bhushans.

His tapped conversation, he said, is concocted.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal)