The Ministry of Home Affairs on Sunday announced that an investigation into the alleged phone tapping of ministers and businessmen carried out by the Essar Group has already begun, following reports in a leading national daily that a complaint was filed with the Prime Minister’s Office on the matter. It was Delhi-based lawyer Suren Uppal, who filed the complaint. Uppal claims to represent Albasit Khan, the Essar Group’s security and vigilance head for more than a decade. Khan reportedly oversaw the whole process carried out between 2001 and 2006. To suggest that the recorded conversations merely indicate “corruption in the business milieu” is an understatement. These conversations showed politicians diluting a murder case to protect corporate interests, businessmen managing parliamentary committees, a large corporate house successfully lobbying for the continuance of their candidate in the Union Cabinet and money allegedly earmarked for a Supreme Court judge to dismiss a case.
In other words, these conversations, reminiscent of the Radia Tapes, showed that almost anything in India can be brought for a price. Similar to the explosive findings of the Radia Tapes, these conversations, if found to be genuine, once again reveal the systemic rot at the heart of Indian politics. The Indian public has been given a possible window into the backroom dealings that determine party positions and government policy. Little wonder that crony capitalism continues to rule the roost, despite claims to the contrary. Between 2000 and 2011, the Essar Group allegedly tapped the phones of some very prominent personalities, including industrialists Mukesh and Anil Ambani of Reliance, former Prime Minister's Office officials Brajesh Mishra and NK Singh, senior BJP politicians Piyush Goyal and Pramod Mahajan, former ministers Praful Patel and Ram Naik, among others.
Similar to the Radia Tapes, the recent Essar expose is the explicit result of corporate rivalry. Back when the Radia Tapes had blown the lid off a corrupt UPA regime, the then-chairman of Tata Sons, Rata Tata, blamed the tapes on a corporate rivalry. “If the corporate battle had not happened, this (Radia Tapes) would not have come out in public,” his lawyer had said to the Supreme Court.
According to Uppal, Essar’s bosses asked Khan to tap the phones in 2001. Khan was allegedly told that since the company was a telecom licensee, it was required by the government to aid in the investigation by intercepting and tapping phones that are under state surveillance. Since the expose, however, Khan has gone undercover and not spoken up on the issue. Suffice to say, the Essar expose has given opposition parties further ammunition against the BJP. Led by the Aam Aadmi Party, the opposition has claimed that the National Democratic Alliance, which was in power between 1999 and 2004, was compromised by big business interests. The tapes should be made public, barring issues pertaining to national security. One must remind the country once again how the political system is manipulated by a few industrial houses. Even institutions, such as the Judiciary, which should be above suspicion, can be manipulated by corporate interests. “In a country where policy making remains opaque and rumours of high-level corruption abound, one aspect of the market – competition – has turned into the means by which some of these allegedly secret dealings end up being exposed,” according to a recent column in Scroll.in.
However, the Essar expose has also raised serious questions about the methods used to tap phones and their legal implications. In India, telephone tapping has to be approved by a designated authority in the government—the Union Home Secretary in case of Central government agencies and the State Home Secretary for the state police. It is illegal otherwise. These government agencies are empowered to order interception of messages under Section 5 of Indian Telegraph Act 1885.
According to a 2014 Internet Governance Forum report on India’s surveillance laws, the Centre issues 7,500-9000 telephone interception orders on an average each month. In other words, Indian citizens are “routinely and discreetly” subject to government surveillance. Unchecked government surveillance is an issue that requires a serious debate. The Indian Telegraph Act 1885 carries few provisions under which the Indian government and its agencies can tap phones in India.
However, these provisions and outdated law are clearly in violation of constitutional provisions and constitutional safeguards. In the case of Essar, the act of phone tapping by private players acquires a very serious dimension, considering the plethora of technology available, even though we have no constitutionally sound lawful interception and phone tapping law in India. There is a definitive lack of regulation. Beyond private detectives and professional computer hackers, there are apps available online that just need to be installed in a phone that one wants to tap. The government needs to introduce legislation to curtail the use of phone tapping, especially by private players.