Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Jan 12, 2006
Of tapped phones and pravasi lectures
THE tapping of the phone of Samajwadi Party General Secretary, Mr Amar Singh, which met a surprising mine-too chorus from non-UPA politicians, and the NRI jamboree in Hyderabad were the two highlights of last week.
While Mr Amar Singh's high-decibel campaign was indeed impressive, with everybody agreed on an individual's right to privacy, phone tapping by the establishment is such an old practice that there were hardly any tears shed for the SP leader.
Notwithstanding that, politicians across the broad spectrum, beginning with the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, condemned the incident and said the politically correct thing. Phone tapping is appalling, especially in a democracy, where an individual's right to privacy should be respected, etc.
On the other hand, when the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Mr Lalu Prasad , now on the back-foot after the loss of his fiefdom of Bihar, squarely defended the Congress(I) chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi, whom Mr Amar Singh has blamed as being behind the eavesdropping on his telecons, and demanded that the transcripts be made public, there was much winking and chuckling and keen interest in knowing the content of the tapes.
Mr Amar Singh is known for his hectic social life, the glitzy parties he attends and his high-profile friends. And in today's world, the media is on such an overdrive to dish out gossip that it has only whetted the appetite of a section of its voyeuristic audience.
Mr Amar Singh's bharat darshan to enlist non-Congress chief ministers' support against the violation of his privacy got him a rich catch; both the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Ms Jayalalithaa, and the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, too claimed that their phones were being tapped and demanded that the issue be probed and the guilty punished. Right on cue, the BJP also said that the phone of its erstwhile president, Mr L.K. Advani, was also tapped.
In typical fashion, Mr Amar Singh alleged than an industrialist and "a journalist MP" were responsible for the plot against him; and that Rs 80 lakh had been spent on the tapping exercise. He went on to say that if this kind of money could be spared to keep tabs on him, "then Rs 5 crore can be given to that detective to shut his mouth and Rs 10 crore for my murder. The issue is not just about my phone being tapped, but my reputation, which someone is bent upon destroying."
Making sweeping allegations against Ms Sonia Gandhi's involvement in the episode, he added that Ms Gandhi had in her possession "at least 60 tapes" containing the conversations of BJP and non-Congress leaders.
Next on his list came the PMO, though he later went back on this target and said he had tried to contact the Prime Minister to apologise but could not speak to him. Earlier, Mr Singh had met the Prime Minister to make a personal complaint.
As channel after channel feasted on this story with allegations and counter-allegations exchanged by panel members from various political parties, Dr Manmohan Singh finally broke his silence on the issue on Tuesday at a book launch function in Delhi and said that it was "shameful" to drag the name of Ms Gandhi and his office, while an enquiry was on. Even though he has made the right noises on action being taken against the guilty, nobody is convinced that the tapping of telephones of political rivals will stop. With so many private players in the field, actually, there will be more opportunities to indulge in this exercise.
The larger question that politicians like Mr Amar Singh need to ask is why the aam janata, whom they woo so ardently during the elections, remain by and large indifferent to their discomfiture. Also, whether it is a hidden camera or a bugged phone, why are their `reputations' getting so fragile that a mere electronic bug can shatter them?
However indefensible, the fact remains that you might change any number of laws to safeguard against phone-tapping, but incentives will always be on offer to beat the system.
Making much of NRIs
The other bit of hoopla related to the fourth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that brings together several members of the huge Indian diaspora from across the world. After much humming and hawing, the first set of OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) cards were handed over to a few NRIs to make their visits to India hassle-free, with life-long multiple entry visas. And the Prime Minister also assured the gathering that, soon, the NRIs will also be able to vote.
Of course, eyebrows were raised within the diaspora segment when Dr Singh indicated that the Gulf NRIs might get the voting right first.
But, then, as Dr Singh said: "Of the three categories of NRIs, overseas Indians in the Gulf are unique. They are NRIs who will never become naturalised citizens of those countries. Their demand seeking voting rights at home has, therefore, a convincing political bias." A liberal insurance scheme was also announced for NRIs on the occasion, in which nearly 2,000 NRIs participated.
Any country should be proud of its overseas citizens, particularly those who have excelled in their professions, created an awesome respect for India and are going out of their way to promote foreign investment in India. Viewed in that background, the sops given to NRIs are justified.
But sometimes our babus get over-zealous when it comes to "honouring" X, Y or Z on the basis of his/her distinction. Perhaps it was inevitable that the award presentation ceremony, presided over by the President, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, turned a wee bit ugly as there were protests over the choice of Washington-based Dr Sudhir Parikh for such an award. As he was being given the award, a couple of NRIs shouted `Shame, shame', and had to be whisked away by the security.
The criticism was that he is a close associate of Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and was responsible for inviting him to the US for a visit that never took place on account of the question mark on Mr Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots.
One does not grudge the NRIs their OCI cards or "liberal" insurance policies, nor the hype and hoopla associated with the `Pravasi' days, where chief ministers dance attendance on them.
But some questions need to be asked about their real and collective contribution to India's progress, particularly those sections that do not have access to star hotels, swanky malls, shining airports, smooth roads, broadband connections and all the gizmos that overseas Indians become accustomed to.
What one certainly finds difficult to digest is the thinly-veiled contempt for symbols of India's "underdevelopment" be it "pot-holed roads" or "swarming flies" that some NRIs, particularly from the US, blatantly display. If not this, you will get lectures on how slow our bureaucracy is, how corrupt our system, and how merit is never ever rewarded here.
Equally difficult to take is the patronising tone... "Not bad... India is finally changing." But the worst of all is the sermonising from the section that has left Indian shores for greener pastures, on how one community or the other should behave!
Their attempts to prove that their patriotism is stauncher than yours and so too their love for Bharat Mata, so you should take lessons on citizen's duties from them, is ludicrous, to say the least.
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