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.

The second line of attack was so silly that you almost think the Gujarat government is being set up by the party. This was the argument that no one else has a locus standi, if the girl or her family is not complaining. This is morally otiose. If there is a violation of settled procedure, a violation of fundamental rights, or an abuse of state power, it becomes a matter of public concern and principle. There is also the morally troubling issue that the woman's agency seems to be so totally sidelined in all of this. Even without revealing identities, it should have been simple to establish that she felt threatened or that there was some reason why she made the request.

Then there is Narendra Modi's response, or rather lack of it. In case he has forgotten, he was and still is chief minister of Gujarat. A question is being addressed to him in that capacity. Instead, he and his defenders have done everything they accuse the Congress of. First, allege a conspiracy. Then impugn the motives of those who bring the message. Allege personal targeting. Then argue that the matter is sub judice. And then the head of government refuses to give a straight, defensible answer. What exactly did he know about the alleged misdemeanour in his government? Then use every trick but totally miss the point. And finally, total blindness to the political context of this debate. If the yardstick of what counts as an acceptable answer is taken from this case then the BJP needs to shut up about almost every charge of corruption it is hurling at the Congress. Institutions and leaders have lost credibility, because instead of displaying integrity and the straightforward exercise of public reason, they have been hiding behind a combination of arcane legal evasion, silence and mendacity. In this case, the BJP has repeated the same thing.

But the fallout from this is disturbing in other ways. It is a measure of the Congress's decimation of institutional credibility that the BJP manages to portray what the Gujarat government did as normal. In India, there is way too little outrage at the ease with which states violate privacy rights. Not one party is serious about forward-looking reform in this area. But in this case, there are questions about the CBI. Why does it not seem to file appropriate charges? Why does it seem to conveniently leak information? The "Congress is bad" defence does not exonerate the BJP; being equally bad is not good enough for our times. But it does show the extent to which all matters of principle are now compromised by partisan warfare.

There are two other issues. Frankly, and this is political analysis, not normative judgement, the Congress is so compromised in institutional morality that if it now uses any means other than an electoral contest to defeat Modi, it will generate polarisation and resentment of the kind we cannot even imagine. We may all talk about the rule of law, but the parts of the state that can give credible meaning to that phrase are few and far between. So it is no wonder that both political parties can claim any demand that they properly explain themselves as a ruse to victimise them. Congress has done it in corruption cases; the BJP is doing it in this case.

Modi also needs to understand that in a contest with unappealing choices he may yet do well. But winning an election is not the same thing as having a wider moral legitimacy that allows you to govern well. India has an inordinate capacity to forgive sinners. But usually, the sinners have to demonstrate that they have turned a new leaf. Alas, Modi's conduct in this case is far from reassuring.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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