Sunday, October 12, 2014

A wire-tap and its ramifications on Karnataka

Life must have come a full-circle for Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah on Friday when Bangalore police commissioner M N Reddi announced that the phones of relatives close to Union railway minister D V Sadananda Gowda were wire-tapped for five days. The previous time a similar scandal erupted in the state – wire-tapping of the phones of former Lokayukta, Justice Santosh Hegde, who was to submit his report on illegal mining in the state in 2011 – it was Siddaramaiah, as leader of Congress party-led Opposition, who galvanized public anger against then BJP government. Hence, his abject silence over the latest controversy brewing in the state comes as a shocking surprise.

Questions arise over whether the government went by the rule-book in ordering the eavesdropping. The commissioner defended it by saying Gowda’s son Karthik – who has been accused by a Kannada actress of cheating and raping her – did not turn up even after two police summonses were issued to him. It is difficult to hypothesise how the wire-tapping could have taken place without the go-ahead from the upper echelons of the ruling dispensation. Further, if the process is to be necessitated, the person in question must be perceived as belonging to a special category, such as a threat to national security. The government has, till date, not clarified over whether its actions were in compliance with the Indian Telegraph Act, giving the impression that it was borne out of political compulsions.

As things stand, the BJP has implied the same and is preparing for a counter-attack by demanding a CBI investigation into the issue. Whether the allegations against Karthik Gowda will die down is anybody's guess (that he is the son of a powerful minister might ensure that it will); however, this issue is threatening to assume the proportion of a full-blown conflict between the Congress and BJP.

As far as Karnataka is concerned, wire-tapping and political backlashes go hand-in-hand. Siddaramaiah should know better, for it was a wire-tap scandal in 1988 that pushed Ramakrishna Hegde, bitter opponent to his one-time mentor H D Deve Gowda, into political insignificance. The parallels between the incident and Karnataka’s first (official) wire-tap scandal that led to the ouster of Hegde, Karnataka’s first non-Congress chief minister, are strikingly similar.

To the uninitiated, Hegde’s ‘inadvertent’ leak of Deve Gowda’s conversations with Ajit Singh to the press (the undivided Indian Express) led to his loss of credibility and eventual resignation. Hegde – then a star in the Janata Party; a leader who could do no wrong – it emerged, had tapped phones of five party dissidents, including Deve Gowda, and a loyalist. The ramifications of the incident were significant: the Rajiv Gandhi-led government, which was under fire from the Opposition following one expose after another (Bofors, Suri-commission scandal to name a microscopic few) got a much-needed breather; the Congress managed to wrest back Karnataka in the subsequent polls. Hegde did make a return to active politics but it was nothing to write home about.

Serious as the issue may be, this may be the least worrisome among the CM’s woes. From shadow boxing with his colleagues, to staving off challenges from his naysayers within the party, Siddaramaiah has his plate full already. One may argue that the CM hasn’t done anything outrageously controversial, but he hasn’t achieved anything remotely spectacular either. Add to this the ebbing investor confidence in Karnataka
, and the only takeaway is that the Congress’ resounding victory in the last Assembly elections is now a distant dream.

Siddaramaiah has another ominous reminder: since Indian independence, no chief minister in Karnataka has been able to complete his term in office. His predecessor, Yeddyurappa, too, would attest to the fact. Although his ouster was a certainty, given the explosive revelations in Justice Santosh Hegde’s report, the fact that Yeddyurappa tried to eavesdrop on Hegde only sullied his name further.

As leader of then Opposition, Siddaramaiah derided the ruling dispensation and blamed Yeddyurappa for abusing his control over the state intelligence bureau. Time will tell whether Siddaramaiah achieved anything significant with the wire-taps.