Let's not silence the Snoopgate scandal

Now that the dust has settled, what does one make of allegations that a young woman was followed all over Gujarat and into other states by Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad and other agencies in 2009, that her phone and those of her close associates were tapped and that all this was monitored by the state’s then home minister on the instructions of the chief minister?

Deafening silence: Narendra Modi, as is well-known, does not like to answer tough questions or indeed anything that makes him uncomfortable

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not unnaturally come out in full force to support Narendra Modi, since he is not just the chief minister of Gujarat but also a prime ministerial hopeful. But there was a tactical error on the party’s defence strategy — getting the woman’s father to confirm the allegations made by two news websites (Cobrapost and Gulail) that the surveillance had been done and that the chief minister was involved. Had the party just gone into outright denial,¬†their arguments might be more convincing.

Instead, BJP spokespersons have had to pretend that following and phone-tapping is the same as offering protection. The “pain” expressed by BJP’s top leaders that anyone can question the woman’s father on this matter is so manufactured that I would hazard even they aren’t convinced. The Congress has been its usual topsy-turvy self on the issue, sometimes upping the ante, other times forgetting. They need help from, well, from the BJP actually, on how to react publicly to an issue. One gets a distinct feeling that the Congress is really frightened by Modi and is unsure about how to tackle him. It was only the media obsession with the Tarun Tejpal case which knocked ‘Saheb’ (Modi’s nickname apparently) and the surveillance story off the front pages and prime time news television. That gave the BJP a bit of a reprieve. And it must have hoped that everyone had forgotten.

As it happens, not. Although Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has now said that the Union government cannot order a probe into a state matter and that the state (Gujarat) has ordered a probe into it anyway, the story is back.

And it is still fascinating for all that it does not tell us. Like how much state money was spent protecting this woman? What was the threat that warranted the Anti-Terrorism Squad being involved? If the woman knew about it — as her father claims — why was her phone tapped? Imagine if this story had been about any other state and any other chief minister in today’s media-frenzied world? Would there have been so much tiptoeing over the issue? Would the chief minister not have been called to account?

Segments of the media are often accused of being anti-Narendra Modi and in the pay of the Congress. Yet, this subject has to be looked at through other non-paranoid prisms as well. Modi wants to be the next prime minister of India. His behaviour and his statements must therefore be held to a higher scrutiny. So far, his speeches have told us that his understanding of Indian history and the Indian Constitution are somewhat tenuous. We still do not have a clear picture — in any number of televised speeches — on his ideas about foreign policy and the economy apart from a constant reference to the Gujarat model and the implication that it is perfect. We need answers from Modi but Modi, as is well-known, does not like to answer tough questions or indeed anything that makes him uncomfortable. That is possibly another aspect of the ‘Gujarat model’ we need to think about.

And now we learn that his government — never mind the other things it has been accused of by now, from riots to fake encounter deaths — has been involved with a bizarre surveillance on a private citizen. And will not tell us why.

There is a case for senior Indian politicians to talk a little more to the people and posture a little less. The Congress would have gained from allowing the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and its president Sonia Gandhi to be interviewed more often, though anything that happens now will be perceived as too little too late.

Right now though, the focus has to be on Modi. How safe will the private citizen be from his snooping if he ever becomes prime minister? 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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