Who’s spying on Pranab, PM in waiting?

After The Indian Express exposed the eavesdropping on Pranab Mukherjee’s office, the finance minister brushed it all away, saying the Intelligence Bureau had investigated his complaint and found nothing serious.

That spies could easily walk in and out the finance ministry is scandalous enough. (Were they insiders, and if they were, aren’t we compromising national security by not identifying them and punishing them?) And for our finance minister to say it was just a trifling little matter seems even more scandalous. He first sought a secret investigation and then called in private sleuths to check what was happening. Obvious question: Why didn’t he call in the home ministry’s detectives? (Possible answer three paras on).

Also, is the government trying to hush it all up? One explanation being given out is that adhesive was found under the tables, but it was just some chewing gum. Really? And why would anyone stick chewing gum at 16 strategic spots, and in rooms where India’s top financial policies are discussed and decided? Three chewing-gum adhesives were stuck in Pranab’s room alone. And why were there grooves on those blobs?

Who could have spied on Pranab-da, as he is called in Delhi’s political circles? Were his bosses keeping an eye on what he was doing? And does that explain why he doesn’t want to talk about it? We list some suspects.

P Chidambaram: The BJP believes Home Minister P Chidambaram was up to some mischief. Now, if that were true, it would be logical to conclude that the battle within the cabinet for the No 2 position is being fought behind the scenes, and that the contenders aren’t shying away from employing dirty tricks. Pranab is now the undisputed No 2: Sonia Gandhi’s trusted man for all seasons, and Manmohan Singh’s ready deputy. Why is the No 2 position so coveted? Well, parliamentary elections are due in 2014, and if the UPA wins again, and Manmohan Singh decides he has had enough and would like to retire, No 2 could become the prime minister (if Rahul Gandhi remains on the sidelines, that is). So. Pranab and Chidambaram are also known adversaries, prompting the BJP to make the exaggerated charge that a civil war has broken out. (War within a party is a factional fight, and not quite the same as people of a country killing each other). India Today reports Pranab bypassed the home ministry because of the “fault lines within the government”.

Party bosses: Many in Delhi say Chidambaram couldn’t have ordered surveillance on Pranab without permission from someone higher up, and that means Sonia Gandhi. The finance ministry is a high security area, and not everyone can walk in. The Gandhi family is vaguely wary of Pranab since 1984, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Pranab was then No 2, as he is today, and the family’s grouse is that he projected himself as next-in-line prime minister. The job went to a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi, who didn’t give Pranab a cabinet position. Pranab then quit the Congress and floated a party of his own. It didn’t make any headway. He came back in 1990, and has been a family loyalist since. But suspicions persist, and could have prompted the bugging of his ministry. Journalist D P Satish uses an analogy from princely times to describe the relationship: “Pranab is the dewan of the Congress family. A dewan enjoy huge powers, but he can never be king. It is customary for the royal family to keep a close eye on its most powerful minister.”

Foreign powers: This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. The Indian government has off and on arrested its own employees on charges of spying. Did someone in some overseas capital get inside information on what India’s finance ministry was thinking at a particular point?And did this country hire Indians working in the finance ministry to place mics so that they could eavesdrop on Pranab’s conversations? Is a larger espionage project afoot to collect information from India’s top leaders? If Pranab can be snooped on, is Prime Minister Manmohan safe? What secrets could have leaked out from Pranab’s office, and who could have benefited is not clear yet. What is stunning is the way the cabinet is taking it all in its stride. No wonder ministers aren’t outraged by private citizens’ complaints of snooping. If powerful ministers in this country are under surveillance, why would they want ordinary citizens spared?

Big business: Lots of very sensitive tapes have come into the public domain recently. They implicate not just the Rajas and the Radias, but also the country’s business icons. It’s possible top ministers clandestinely released these private phone conversations to the media. In the dirty tricks department, what the government can do, the private sector can do better. If the government spies on corporate houses, they can spy right back. Could our business icons have sent undercover agents to find out what was happening behind closed doors? Any advance information from the finance ministry is worth millions at the stock market. Did someone make a killing somewhere using inputs from the country’s financial policy makers? Were the snoopers looking for tip-offs about tax raids?

Political rivals: The BJP has started beating the UPA with the ‘breach of security’ stick. Pranab’s rivals may be tying to dig up enough dirt to keep him out of the top position. But all that’s within the party. Would the opposition BJP snoop on him this way? Theoretically, yes. It’s all possible in the cloak-and-dagger world of Delhi politics, but that party wouldn’t be demanding an investigation so loudly if it were involved in this murky business, would it? Sushma Swaraj has described the incident as India’s Watergate, but we’ll have to wait and see if it brings down the mighty as Watergate did in the US, or if the investigations will go anywhere at all. First Post isn’t surprised by all this: “If the No 2 man in the government, the most powerful cabinet minister in the UPA government who heads several sensitive ministerial committees, can be monitored illegally, it also means that it’s a free-for-all in Delhi’s power game.”

Questions, questions, questions. What’s your conspiracy theory?

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