Whoever bugged Pranab-da was playing for high stakes

The report that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's conversations may have been tapped by sticking secret electronic devices in his chambers and that of his staff is a chilling reminder that Big Money now operates so close to the centres of power.

Not that this is a surprise in India's crony capitalist economy - ask Raja, Kalmadi, various Reliance executives and other recent entrants to Tihar jail - but it is surely a pointer to the stakes involved.

If the No 2 man in the government, the most powerful cabinet minister in the UPA government who heads several sensitive ministerial committees, can be monitored illegally, it also means that it's a free-for-all in Delhi's power game.

According to The Indian Express, which broke the story, the bugging devices were first discovered on September 4, 2010, when the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) swept Mukherjee's office to check for eavesdropping gadgets, and found "plantable adhesive substances". Translated, it means devices that can monitor conversations could have been stuck to these adhesives, including chewing gum-like stickies.

 Whoever bugged Pranab-da was playing for high stakes

Big Money now operates close to the centres of power. Reuters

Several questions and possibilities arise from the Express report, including the big question of who would have wanted to listen in to conversations in the finance ministry. Here they are.

First, who: To be sure, most business houses would give their right arms to know what the FM is thinking about taxes or tax raids. But it is not possible to keep a bug planted for weeks or months on the assumption that no one will notice. Hence anyone who planted it would probably do it only if he or she knew a particular kind of conversation would take place within a specific timeframe. The chances are it was a business house - and one with large stakes in knowing what is going on.

A second possibility is politics and party related. It is not likely that the PM's office would want to listen in on Pranab's conversations. He is not the boss anyway. But what about the party? Given the dog-eat-dog world of Congress politicians, it is not unthinkable that someone wanting to pull Pranab down a notch or two with the party bosses would want to find out what kind of things he was up to. It is also not impossible that the high command itself may have wanted to check what he was doing, since Pranab is the wiliest politician in the UPA with enough stature to mount a future threat to Sonia and Rahul. When ministers like Sharad Pawar and party bigwigs like Digvijaya Singh can be phone-tapped illegally, why not Pranab?

A third possibility is a foreign spy agency. These days, the business of most countries is business. This means more than security and defence information, which anyway can be garnered through spy satellites, it is economic and policy information that is critical to foreign countries seeking to gain advantage in Indian deals or projects.

Second, when. Since subsequent investigations did not find any live mike attached to the adhesives, it means that whoever was eavesdropping on the FM, did so much earlier. If the bugs were meant to work for a specific period before September 2010, it should be possible to narrow down on the possible suspects based on who would have been most interested in what the FM was discussing with his babus around that time.

If, on the other hand, the bugs were planted off and on, it speaks of a much more widespread conspiracy to tap into the FM's conversations on critical policy decisions.

Third, how. Planting bugs inside a highly secure minister's office needs lot of official complicity. You need the help of government employees or people who have regular, and fairly unrestricted, access, to the FM's office and that of his staff. Or, the government staff themselves would have been trained to plant the devices. Either way, the circle of suspects cannot be a huge number. If the bugs were to be planted off and on, it would need even greater internal help. The possibility of insiders being involved is thus high.

Fourth, what. Assuming someone wanted to take the risk of planting devices in the FM's office, the motive for doing so must have been fairly important. Businessmen seeking changes in policies or information on what's coming up can anyway find that out through their normal spies and political cronies. What did the bug-planter want to learn that he could not have learned otherwise? Chances are they were playing for very high stakes.

Fifth, where. Or where else. Since it is the Finance Minister who complained to the PM on the security breach, one assumes that only he was the target of eavesdropping. But what if such devices are planted in many ministries, many offices?

The irony is that government functionaries, or people in government, illegally tap into public conversations. Now, powerful players outside the government are returning the compliment. It's spy vs spy.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:54:55 IST