A question to Modi

Evasion or silence cannot be a response to the surveillance controversy.

The late Edward Kennedy once said that "integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its vein". Perhaps it is a sign of how accustomed we have become to poison in our institutions that the mere discovery of poison begets more of it. The latest allegations against Amit Shah in the wake of the Cobrapost tapes certainly suggest this. Let us at once acknowledge that the facts, as we know them, may be incomplete, that the parties which engaged in the expose may be motivated. But the conduct of the BJP suggests that the crisis we face is not just about how we determine guilt or innocence. It is far worse. The BJP does not even seem to try and understand the relevant moral distinctions. And in the process it is also displaying colossal political myopia.

The issue is grave. A state government subjects a young woman to extraordinary, invasive and meticulous surveillance of a kind that should make partisans for liberty shudder. The Gujarat government seems to take an unusual interest in this case; Amit Shah's personal monitoring is of the order you would expect for a major national security threat. And the surveillance seems to have been done at someone's behest. Perhaps there is a plausible explanation for all this. But the BJP's response, rather than clarifying matters, has exemplified the rot in the system at multiple levels. It has personified every fault of the Congress, and then some.

First, there is the bizarre confusion of the personal and the political, as if the state was someone's personal fiefdom. If indeed there were good reasons to engage in the surveillance, the government of Gujarat could have simply explained its position. It could have argued that it was done in accordance with all existing procedures, and after passing all the checks and balances required for such surveillance under current laws. Instead of the government answering the case, as it should have, the party did. And in its defence it produced a letter written by the father saying that the girl in question needed security of some sort, and condemned the use of the issue by vested interests. In a way, this confirmed the revelations rather than contested them. Even assuming the sincerity of the letter, the issue of law and principles is not settled. The nature of the surveillance, the agencies conducting it and the nature of the information being sought seem so wildly disproportionate to the purported request. And the surrounding conversation makes the issue murky, to say the least. But more importantly, if there was indeed good reason, it still needed to go through the proper process of authorisation. Those processes are the only thin safeguards that supposedly distinguish us from a Stasi-style regime. And the government, not the party, needs to defend it on those grounds.

... contd.

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