Snooping scandal: No Mr Modi, you have to answer

Ever since the expose alleging illegal surveillance of a woman architect by the Gujarat Police, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has chosen to stay silent on the issue despite the fact that it took place in a state of whose administration he holds charge.

The Gujarat Chief Minister made his first references to it, obliquely, during his rallies  in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh this week, when he told the Congress to stop attacking him and the BJP on other issues, and stick to the debate on development.

His former deputy at the Gujarat home department Amit Shah has also chosen to stay mum on the issue despite the fact that his name features prominently in the allegations. Instead, he has relied on the defence mounted by the BJP in which they choose not to deny the veracity of the tapes, but instead allege that the surveillance was done with the consent of the woman's father.

 Snooping scandal: No Mr Modi, you have to answer

Will Modi give an answer to this one? Representational image. AFP

The woman's father, who initially said he had asked Modi to take care of his daughter, has shot off a letter to the National Commission for Women alleging that his daughter knew of the surveillance and no further probe was needed in the matter.

“I, on behalf of my daughter, urge that whatever help was rendered upon my request was within her knowledge and in her own interest, safety and security, and there has been no encroachment on her privacy as sought to be made out,” he wrote.

Given the handling of the issue so far, it's likely that the BJP will hold up the father's defence of Modi as proof that no further action is needed, but unfortunately nothing could be worse.  

But as Firstpost's Lakshmi Chaudhary had pointed out earlier, using the woman's father and his letters as a defence and our acceptance of it is completely wrong. The woman has agency, those in power cannot use its mechanisms for personal tasks and illegal surveillance is always a problem, no matter why it is carried out.

In his column in the Indian Express today, Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out why the BJP's prime ministerial nominee cannot stay silent on the issue any more:

Then there is Narendra Modi's response, or rather lack of it. In case he has forgotten, he was and still is chief minister of Gujarat. A question is being addressed to him in that capacity. Instead, he and his defenders have done everything they accuse the Congress of.

First, allege a conspiracy. Then impugn the motives of those who bring the message. Allege personal targeting. Then argue that the matter is sub judice. And then the head of government refuses to give a straight, defensible answer. What exactly did he know about the alleged misdemeanour in his government? Then use every trick but totally miss the point. And finally, total blindness to the political context of this debate.

But Mehta blames the Congress as much as the BJP for allowing institutions to degrade so much that snooping on a private individual seems normal, as does the leak of the tapes recorded during the course of it by the CBI. As a result, action by any state agency is portrayed as a result of political targeting by both the Congress and BJP depending on who the target is.

The BJP has already deemed the issue a political scandal meant to derail its plans for the 2014 polls and given Modi a clean chit. However, reports now state that there may have been upto 93,000 mobiles that were tapped by the Gujarat Police since December 2012.

Surveillance by enforcement agencies when there is an objective, sanction and oversight can be justified. Illegal surveillance and phone tapping isn't unheard by the police force of any state in India, but the misuse of police force to carry out personal surveillance is a matter of concern, especially when it involves an individual who could be the next Prime Minister.

Modi, as Mehta points out, is still the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and unfortunately needs to come clean on whether this took place under his watch. As his party expects, there will be more controversies ahead of the 2014 polls, but ducking them can't be a standard operation procedure for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

Updated Date: Nov 20, 2013 10:46:36 IST