As far as I can tell, the official position of the government of India on the bugging of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office appears to be that the Intelligence Bureau investigated the matter and found nothing. But if any bugging took place then this is unprecedented and totally shocking.
This position has clearly been manufactured for public consumption. There seems little doubt that the finance minister himself believed that his office was being bugged. And it is as clear that as well as being the investigator, the Intelligence Bureau is also one of the primary suspects.
As for the second part of the government’s defence that such bugging – if it did take place – is unprecedented and totally shocking, well, that’s a load of old tosh. There are loads of precedents. And whatever your view of the Intelligence Bureau’s overall efficiency, there is no doubt that in this one area, the IB’s flat-foots are competent buggers.
Foreign dignitaries visiting India are always warned by their own security services that IB will bug their conversations. In his diaries, Alistair Campell, one of Tony Blair’s closest advisors during the Downing Street years, provides details of how the British Prime Minister was bugged while on an official visit to India. According to Campbell, when he started talking to Blair in the limo that was taking them from Delhi airport to their hotel, the Prime Minister smiled a lot but refused to say anything. When Campbell seemed bemused, it was pointed out to him that MI6 though the limo was bugged. Later, when Blair checked into the hotel, British security officials swept his suite. They found several bugs which were then removed.
The British did not make an issue of this because virtually any foreign dignitary who visits India expects to be bugged. These days, technology has advanced to the point where anyone can be bugged at any place but way back in the 1950s when interception was difficult, the IB had already worked out how to keep taps on foreign visitors. Several rooms at the then newly-constructed Ashoka Hotel, which was used to accommodate official guests, were bugged. IB officials had the ability to intercept landline calls to and from the rooms of these guests.
These days, hotels have no choice but to go along with the IB’s activities in this area. Typically, the IB will ask for a suite to be handed over to it for so-called security clearance at least 24 hours before the dignitary is due. It is during this period that the bugs will be inserted. The hotel will also be told to provide facilities at its switchboard for IB to listen in on all calls.
When the government of India says that only certain hotels have security clearance what it actually means is that these are the hotels where the IB can bug the rooms and manipulate the switchboard.
It isn’t just foreigners who find themselves bugged. Former IB officials have written about the placing of bugging devices in Rashtrapati Bhavan in the 1980s when President Giani Zail Singh was trying to dismiss the government. Zail Singh himself told me that he was sure that Rashtrapati Bhavan was bugged and insisted on having all sensitive conversations in the gardens.
He also told me a funny story which he believed illustrated the blatant nature of the bugging. The President was due to meet home minister Buta Singh one evening. Unfortunately, his previous appointment ran over and his staff called Buta Singh and told him that there would be a delay. But the moment that Zail Singh stood up and said goodbye to his visitor before escorting him out, the phone rang in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was Buta Singh’s office. Now that the visitor is leaving, asked Buta Singh’s PA, can the home minister come over?
According to Zail Singh, Buta Singh’s office called even before the guest had been escorted out. How could they have known that the meeting was at an end if they had not been listening in?
It is no secret that during that period the Intelligence Bureau also tapped the phone of VP Singh who was then finance minister. Under MK Narayanan, Rajiv Gandhi’s favourite secret agent (and later, Manmohan Singh’s National Security Advisor) the IB specialised in political intelligence. It kept tabs on Opposition politicians and on members of the Cabinet.
So when the Government of India acts shocked by the allegation that Pranab Mukherjee was bugged, it is time to get sceptical. Pranab is hardly the first finance minister to have had his office bugged (and his phone tapped in all probability).
So, what’s the difference between then and now? Well, basically that everything that happened in the old days was centrally sanctioned and therefore subject to some kind of check. These days alas, it is every man for himself. The Prime Minister has lost control of the instruments of administration. Ministers plot openly against each other. And when bugs are discovered, there is no telling who might have planted them and under whose instructions.