It would be futile to search for any issue behind this power struggle. It would be more rewarding to identify its underlying cause. Because, this time a ferocious power struggle could develop without any issues separating opponents. If that happens it could signal the collapse of the prevalent political culture. It could herald the transition to a new era. To appreciate the reasons for this the current political situation needs to be thoroughly understood.
The various sting operations by the media have brought into open all the hatred and criminality that had remained bottled up among politicians. To recognize this, one has to heed merely the level of political discourse. Mr. Mulayam Singh and Mr. Amar Singh have accused a big industrialist of abetting Mrs. Sonia Gandhi in getting their phones tapped. They did not name the industrialist to avoid perhaps a defamation case. However, it became fairly clear to media persons covering the event the person they had in mind. The matter did not end there. Later both leaders claimed that there was a plot being hatched by the same industrialist to kill them. Such charges are being made in all seriousness. If the charges have substance it would be regrettable. If they are made to create an atmosphere it would be no better. The casual way in which murder and criminal conspiracy charges are leveled against contemporaries is symptomatic of the dreadful malaise that has overtaken India's political class.
Parties have ceased to be relevant. It is open war between individuals displaying hatred that would do gangsters proud. The Sanjay Joshi tape which ended his tenure as secretary of BJP is being sourced to circles within the BJP. On the dais BJP leaders are described as Ram or Laxman or Hanuman. But off the dais they brazenly pursue a policy of God-eat-God. The infighting within Congress is less crude but not less fierce. The overall scene therefore is reminiscent of the mafia gangs in America during the last century. The police and FBI succeeded in fomenting disputes among the gang leaders. The ensuing gang wars destroyed some of America's leading gangsters. On India's political turf there was no police to ignite this war being fought by thieves fallen out. God and nature seem to be at work. But the future of the present political class may not differ very much from what befell the mafia gangsters of America.
The worrisome aspect is that India may soon have to make crucial decisions in foreign policy. It is a time when rule by a stable coherent government is imperative. How will India cope in the months ahead? Will the instinct to survive restrain our politicians sufficiently to restore a semblance of stability to tide over the critical days ahead? If that does happen there could be restraint in the short term and reform in the long term. Otherwise the days ahead could be grim, very grim.
Is history repeating itself as farce? In 1975 Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. That gave birth to opposition unity. Now there has occurred an incident which seems to be developing into a new rallying point for opposition unity. Mr Amar Singh's phone was tapped. With his characteristic flair for publicity Mr Singh lobbied against this trespass of privacy. He garnered surprising support from both the media and politicians.
At the moment of writing Mr LK Advani, Mr Chandrababu Naidu, Ms Jayalalithaa, Mr Deve Gowda, Mr Prakash Singh Badal and Mr Sitharam Yechuri are just some of the political luminaries who have claimed to be victims of nefarious electronic eavesdropping. And every day the tally of those who are jumping on the phone-tapping bandwagon increases. Undoubtedly innumerable politicians have been victims of phone-tapping. The CPI (M) leader Mr Prakash Karat solemnly described this as a serious breach of democratic norms and demanded a thorough and credible inquiry. Mr Amar Singh meanwhile has moved the Supreme Court. He has accused Mrs. Sonia Gandhi of being the inspiration of a conspiracy to entrap him.
The media is enthusiastically investigating this affair while the police conduct their own probe. The police have claimed that the official letters which authorized the phone taps were forged. They have made some arrests and claimed to have identified the mastermind behind the crime without disclosing his name. It has already been established that big money exchanged hands to organize the surveillance. One newspaper has authoritatively stated that the mastermind was a former Intelligence officer who has already fled the country. If this is correct it speaks volumes about the police which knew of his identity but allowed him to escape.
There is considerable speculation about the more salacious aspects of the affair. The grapevine is buzzing with rumors about taped conversations with Bollywood starlets and underworld dons. All this may be conveniently ignored. There are just two aspects that merit serious consideration. First, whether the official letters authorizing the phone tapping were in fact forgeries or was this claim part of a cover-up? Both Reliance Infocom, the service provider for the parallel phone lines used for tapping, and the police have confirmed that many official requests for parallel lines are periodically made. But Reliance Infocom gave the parallel line in this case to a private detective who submitted the purported letters of authorization. The firm did not check with official sources the authenticity of the letters because of the large number of such requests it deals with. But are these large number of requests outsourced to private detectives who tap phones on behalf of the police? Have there been other cases of outsourcing by either police or telecom service providers to private individuals enabling them to tap phones with official sanction? Is outsourcing of phone tapping by police to private detectives customary? If so, are they paid a fee from the tax-payer's money to do a job which the police is fully equipped to handle? And if they are paid a fee for their services, does it not open a window for corrupt officials to demand their own cut from the fee paid?
The second aspect worth consideration would arise only if the letters are genuine. That would suggest that an extra-constitutional authority could order electronic surveillance of political opponents. In either event, whether the letters were forged or not, gaping holes in our national security have been exposed. This has been the state of affairs for a very long time.
Phone tapping of political leaders by official agencies is a legacy of British rule. The bureaucratic steel frame inherited from the British remained intact. Its mode of functioning did not change. Intelligence agencies during British rule kept close tabs on political leaders. The practice continued under the new dispensation.
What is new is the motivation behind surveillance. Previously it was collection of information. During Indira Gandhi's tenure it changed to collection of material for use against politicians to coerce them into submission. A distinguished former director of CBI confessed in a private conversation his puzzlement over being asked to investigate celebrities. After he had gathered incriminating evidence against them, he heard nothing further about his findings. He should have known. His information went into dossiers that came in handy to blackmail inconvenient politicians.
That practice has grown exponentially. And as quantitative change eventually becomes qualitative change, it has perverted the role of investigative agencies and the very nature of politics. These agencies have become instruments of vendetta against political opponents. After Mr Mulayam Singh became inconvenient his disproportionate assets are being probed. Meanwhile Ms Mayawati's compliance has earned her respite from further probes of her disproportionate assets. And the scandalous manner in which the Bofors probe is sought to be buried reveals everything.
The phone tapping peccadillo therefore is just the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath it is much uglier. What attracts attention is the passion it has aroused among parties