The manufactured “controversy” over MHA notification on government agencies authorised to intercept ‘private’ communications brings out two issues very clearly. One, Indian media is prone to jumping to conclusions without due diligence. These make for ill-informed debates and dumbing down of political discourse. Two, India’s oldest political party is taking a dangerous turn towards immaturity under its newest president.
Let’s begin with the second point. There is no doubt that Rahul Gandhi has managed to energise the Congress cadre and, even more importantly, infuse a modicum of unity in a party that has traditionally been prone to infighting and factionalism. It has been said long enough that Congress is its own worst enemy.
Though his mantle was the result of dynastic entitlement and not inner-party democracy, nevertheless in his first year as president, Rahul has brought warring factions together and infused a sense of purpose in the veins of the grand old party. He has also put together an excellent team to manage big data and effectively use it in shaping political narratives. The Congress ran BJP close in Gujarat and snatched away three Hindi heartland states from the saffron unit. Rahul may legitimately claim credit for it.
To set an early electoral agenda and turn around Congress’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Rahul — perhaps acting on inputs from his team of crack data analysers — has decided that he should launch an aggressive, frontal attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose steady popularity (see survey reports in November 2017 and November 2018) remains BJP’s biggest asset and Congress’s key concern. Nothing wrong with Rahul’s strategy, except that in order to target Modi through a vilification campaign — perhaps to show him as corrupt, hateful, dictatorial and pull him down from the pedestal a few notches — the Congress president has frequently tried to take shortcuts where none exist.
From indulging in theatrics such as the hug-and-wink routine in Parliament, gaslighting on ‘single-rate’ GST, launching a post-truth narrative on Rafale, calling the prime minister a “thief” to spinning a 2009 UPA-era law as an example of Modi’s “insecure dictatorship”, Rahul’s personalised and shrill campaign has frequently crossed all boundaries and broken all conventions. This wouldn’t have mattered had the Congress president been able to buttress his accusations with facts or even a smoking gun but in absence of either, the campaigns have become steadily harsher and fantastic.
Take the GST, for instance. Malaysia, which is a much smaller nation compared to India, recently scrapped its deeply unpopular ‘single-rate’ GST though it was envisaged as a “less complex” tax. It will be even more difficult to implement such a uniform rate in a much larger and socio-economically more complex nation such as India. Yet Congress, which has no skin in the game because it isn’t in power, has been pressing for a ‘single-slab’ GST and Rahul has targeted Modi over what he calls ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’.
This might be a catchy political slogan but it reflects immaturity of the leadership. It also carries little economic or even political sense, considering the fact that GST rates are decided by a GST Council comprising representatives from all parties. Even if we leave aside the impossibility of taxing luxury yachts and tea at the same rate, Rahul may remember that the Congress-led UPA left behind the legacy of 31 percent indirect tax on most items, that weakens his moral position on this issue.
The UPA had left behind a legacy of 31% indirect Tax on most items. The GST has already reduced 334 items to 12% and 18% slab. Wasn’t the 31% Tax an oppressive idea- a stupid one at that.
— Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) December 20, 2018
On Rafale, for instance, Rahul Gandhi’s tone-deaf campaign has left little space for an informed debate. In a short span of time, Rahul has called the Union defence minister a liar; the Union finance minister a liar; the prime minister a liar; the Dassault CEO a liar; and has implied that even French president Emmanuel Macron was lying. Congress has ended up calling the Indian Air Force chief a liar and has cast aspersions against even the Supreme Court for passing a verdict on Rafale that wasn’t to its liking. In short, the argument seems to be that everyone but the Congress president is lying on Rafale.
On the MHA notification, the latest flashpoint between BJP and the Opposition, Rahul’s tweet indicates that the prime minister is showing signs of “insecure dictatorship” by bringing in a law that enables the state to snoop on every computer and a citizen’s private data.
Converting India into a police state isn’t going to solve your problems, Modi Ji.
It’s only going to prove to over 1 billion Indians, what an insecure dictator you really are. https://t.co/KJhvQqwIV7
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 21, 2018
Congress has launched a ‘stalker sarkar’ campaign against the NDA on social media and senior leaders have called the notification an “assault on people’s fundamental rights” and the law “violative of the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution”. While the larger points on 'national security versus privacy' needs to be debated in light of the Supreme Court's recent judgment on Aadhaar, Congress position on this issue reeks of hypocrisy, given the fact that this UPA-era law was brought by the Manmohan Singh government in 2009. All provisions invoked by the MHA notification on Friday were contained within that law.
For instance, on government surveillance over private data and its interception, a statement by RPN Singh — minister of state in Union ministry of home affairs on 11 February, 2014, in the UPA 2 government — tabled in Lok Sabha reveals that “incidents of physical/electronic surveillance in the States of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi, allegedly without authorization have been reported.” The minister’s statement also reveals that “Standard Operating Procedures for Interception, Handling, Use, Sharing, Copying, Storage and Destruction of records have been issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Central Law Enforcement Agencies.”
As Jaitley has pointed out in his blog, during UPA-II in a detailed debate in Parliament relating to corporate lobbyist, then Home Minister P Chidambaram had indirectly admitted in Parliament that the lobbyist’s phone was “under vigil”. Chidambaram had argued strongly in favour of tax evasion being a valid ground for interception and had insisted that the “government was entitled to tap conversations if they relate to any transaction that needed to be investigated.”
So, a legitimate question that one may ask the Congress president is this: Was he referring to his own government while tweeting on turning India into a “police state”?
The Congress president’s brazenly contradictory positions and immature assertions spring from a belief that either the media will fail to hold him accountable for taking liberties with facts, or the media is too busy jumping to conclusions to verify facts and conduct due diligence before taking positions. It is the job of the media to ask questions of the government in power and put its actions to scrutiny, but if that job leaves large factual gaps, the entire edifice falls apart and ‘questioning’ becomes an extension of ‘campaigning’.
Even a perfunctory scrutiny of the recent MHA notification would have been enough to show that the notification is not an “expansion” of the government’s power but a reassertion of its existing powers. In fact, by notifying the names of the agencies that are authorised to collect such sensitive information, the government may have removed some ambiguities from the law that could have enabled a zealous agency to overstep some boundaries.
There is no doubt that the existing law still leaves enough gaps for the state to exploit but when the fundamental question is whether India should have a proper judicial framework for acts of surveillance instead of delegating such authority to bureaucrats, little point is served in political blame-gaming. Media’s ill-informed debates add to the confusion and important questions are buried in the din.
Updated Date: Dec 22, 2018 20:09:00 IST