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Snooping in the time of polls: Why netas need private detectives

By Debobrat Ghose

2005: For the first time a sensational case of telephone tapping of a high profile political leader – Amar Singh, former Samajwadi Party leader – by a private detective made headlines. The detective was arrested in 2006.

2013: A similar case again made headlines, when a private detective was arrested for allegedly accessing the call details of the leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, along with that of several other BJP leaders and business tycoons.

The common factor in both these high profile cases was Dr Anurag Singh, a medical doctor-turned- private detective. Singh’s arrest made people aware of the existence of detectives in political circles and their undercover functioning. However, for those familiar with the murky goings on in the political world they are a familiar presence.

Anurag Singh was caught for overstepping the thin line that divides the ethical and the unethical, the legal and the illegal functioning in private investigation domain. Otherwise, his operations were perfect. According to the sources within the Delhi Police, he was the person who allegedly helped the Special Cell crack the cricket match-fixing scandal that involved former South African skipper Hansie Cronje, the Parliament attack case of 2001, DPS MMS scandal and also helped intelligence agencies track sleeper cells of terror groups. Given the nature of their job, many still cross that line.

The last assembly elections in five states and the ongoing general elections 2014 have given a sudden boost to the undercover operation of private detectives in the political arena. A large number of detective agencies and private investigators are out across the country, ferreting out details about people, digging dirt on the opponents of their clients and doing jobs regular people would stay clear of.

How do they operate? Well, it’s always an undercover operation and an agency prior to undertaking an assignment has to sign a non-disclosure agreement with its client. One can’t reveal the identity of the client even if caught. “We’re like a spy working on behalf of Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) in a foreign country. If caught, we are immediately disowned,” says a private detective who doesn’t want to be identified.

The same happened with Anurag Singh – a cyber expert and a brilliant hacker. “The moment he was arrested he was disowned by detective agencies, associations and others. He must have been doing all these snooping on some client’s behalf, as it was not possible for him to bear such heavy expenses. But, it remained a mystery,” remarks a person in the know.

A screengrab of APDI website

A screengrab of APDI website

The Association of Private Detectives & Investigators –India (APDI), a national umbrella organisation of private detective agencies, with more than 120 members and eight state chapters acts as a guideline for its member agencies. It aims towards inculcating a code of ethics and improve the standard of service.

“The professional private detective agencies work within the legal framework, and none of our professional colleagues indulge in any illegal or unethical practice,” says Taralika Lahiri, secretary, APDI.

The assignments, which are sometimes even termed as ‘odd or dirty jobs’, can broadly be divided into three categories. First, a political party may want an agency to get a background check done on its own candidates before allotting tickets, to find out the loyalty factor, popularity of the candidate, corruption charges, involvement in any anti-social activities etc.

Second, the client may want to know about his political rival – right from the opponent’s weaknesses, illegal assets, corruption charges to illicit relationships, false claims made, etc.

And, third is working as an undercover agent by getting into the opponent’s camp as its worker and passing on important information to the client in the form recordings, photos, etc.

“Detectives are hired to find out war-room strategies of the opponent, to know beforehand what’s there in opponent’s manifesto, etc,” says a Mumbai-based agency head.

Despite functioning within ethical parameters, in some cases an agency fails to know the real face of its client. “Sometimes, politicians through their conduits approach agencies for their personal matters, like in one case a senior Congress leader in Delhi approached us to know about his wife’s extra-marital relationship,” shares a detective on condition of anonymity.

It’s a two-to-three-layered approach of conduits, as a politician wants to remain unidentified to safeguard his/her image, and an agency may not know when the conduit would disappear. As a result the agency may even lose its fee. “There’s tremendous risk factor in this job,” is the unanimous opinion of the detectives at work.

“Whenever my agency undertakes any such assignment, it has to be vetted by our panel of legal experts and we ensure that the job is not anti-national or illegal. Every assignment is backed by the signing of an agreement,” says Naman Jain, managing director, Sleuths India.

It’s not all hunky-dory within a detective agency. The agencies too are under a risk of external invasion, as their own employees are also vulnerable. “Extreme care is taken in selection of team members and a close monitoring is required to ensure that they don’t succumb to any external pressure or lure”.

This Rs 5,000 crore plus booming industry of private detectives and investigators, of which this segment of ‘keeping an eye on one’s political rival’ comprises only 10-15% -- is not an easy cake-walk. It’s only during elections that this niche segment gets business. The agencies are tight-lipped over the fees they charge to their political clients. But, sources say it ranges between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 10 lakh, and sometimes go much beyond that depending on the nature of assignment.

“I’m sure the political parties are benefitted by the services of private detectives otherwise no political party or politician would have been hiring such services. The need of the hour is to provide our job the status of a mainstream profession,” adds managing partner of National Detectives & Corporate Consultants, Taralika Lahiri, who is also India’s first and only woman private detective to be elected as a member of World Detective Association.

Updated Date: Apr 13, 2014 16:52 PM

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