The Prime Minister told a select group of Editors the other day that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had complained to him about his office being bugged by the Home Ministry. On receiving this complaint, he (the Prime Minister) asked the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to investigate and report back to him directly. The Home Minister was kept out of the loop. The IB came back to him and declared that it found no bugging devices and the prime minister says he was satisfied with the enquiry. Those who know how these things are done, are not taken in by Mr. Manmohan Singh’s facile explanations.

 There is enough evidence of how Mr Singh’s predecessors have used the IB and other intelligence gathering agencies to spy on their colleagues and on their political opponents. There is also sufficient material to show that the Home Ministry often supervised such murky operations. In fact, in the present case, a private agency hired by the Finance Ministry to conduct a debugging operation has confirmed that Mr Mukherjee’s office was indeed under surveillance. So, in these days when the government’s credibility has hit rock bottom, the opinion of a private detective agency seems to carry far greater weight than the mechanical defence of the IB by Mr Singh.

There is yet another reason why Mr Mukherjee’s complaint sounds real and that is the long standing tradition among Congress Prime Ministers to “use” the IB to keep tabs on their colleagues and to run personal errands for them. Some of this has been chronicled by individuals who have held senior positions within government and agencies like the IB and the Central Bureau of Investigation. For example, Mr B G Deshmukh, former Cabinet has recorded how Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted the Director, IB to deliver a suit case full of Italian currency to his brother-in-law in Rome, supposedly as fees for training the Special Protection Group which was guarding the Prime Minister. He also places on record the fact that during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership, IB personnel were deployed in Rashtrapati Bhavan to keep tabs on persons visiting the then President, Giani  Zail Singh.

Mr Deshmukh says that the security cordon around Rashtrapati Bhavan was manned by IB personnel under the Home Ministry “and we knew in detail who came to see Zail Singh and when”. The security personnel were free to frisk visitors and find any written messages or documents being taken in. “Zail Singh was very unhappy with this arrangement” according to Mr Deshmukh, but the government continued the surveillance.

Others have recorded that President Singh feared that his office had been bugged and therefore stopped meeting important visitors in his chamber. Instead, he chatted with them while walking in Mughal Gardens. Mr Maloy Krishna Dhar, former Joint Director of IB, has done a far more elaborate documentation of the misuse of IB in his book “Open Secrets – India’s Intelligence Unveiled”. He talks of how when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister’s Office assigned him the task of spying on Mr Zail Singh, who was then the Home Minister! Dhar was asked to record the conversation between Zail Singh and an emissary of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi. Dhar carried out the assignment and gave a report that went directly to the Prime Minister.

Even more troublesome is the fact that Indira Gandhi deployed this IB officer to mount a surveillance on her daughter-in-law Ms Maneka Gandhi within the Prime Minister’s Residence at 1, Safdarjung Road, some time after the tragic demise of Sanjay Gandhi.

Mr Dhar kept tabs on Maneka Gandhi’s friends and relatives. According to him “a few friends of the young widow of Sanjay were wired up. That produced tonnes of appalling information on the courageous young lady who had decided to embark on a collision course”.  Later, Maneka left the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Thereafter, Dhar was directed to mount technical and human intelligence operations against Maneka Gandhi and her mother Amteshwar Anand. He bugged the telephone at Maneka’s mother’s residence in Jor Bagh to gather intelligence. Also, on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Dhar says he did another “dirty job” – to infiltrate the Editorial Board of `Surya’ Magazine run by Maneka Gandhi. These are just a few of the dozens of instances of misuse of IB and other intelligence gathering agencies by Congress Prime Ministers. As these instances show, these Prime Ministers used the IB to spy on even the Home Minister and the Rashtrapati. The IB was even used to spy on members of the family.

In the present case, Mr Mukherjee is the most seasoned politician in the Union Cabinet. He was a member of India Gandhi’s ministry in the mid-1970s and handled key departments as a Minister of State for Finance. Mr Manmohan Singh was a bureaucrat who entered politics and became a minister at Mr Narasimha Rao’s behest in 1991.

There can be little doubt that Mr Mukherjee’s presence in the Union Cabinet would give someone like Mr.Singh a sense of insecurity. In similar circumstances, Mr Singh’s predecessors have called in the dirty tricks department to keep tabs on a more experienced minister. However, at the moment we have no reason to believe that the Prime Minister has done any such thing. But, we need to bear in mind that there is another, more authoritative centre of power at the national level in India (the Congress President Ms Sonia Gandhi) and that centre of power decides who gets the Home portfolio and who becomes the Director of the IB.

Therefore, taking the Prime Minister at face value, it can be said that in all probability, a government agency was deployed by either the Home Ministry or the Super PM to bug the office of the Finance Minister. When Mr Mukherjee complained, the Prime Minister probably called in the very same agency to ascertain the facts! The IB sleuths must have laughed all the way to North Block as they headed for their “investigation” and as part of the alleged inquiry, they may have even removed any traces of bugging.  In case the Prime Minister still does not know, this is the theory that is regarded as the most credible in the capital today.

It is also the most credible for the reasons cited earlier in this article – the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis have a tradition of spying on their own MPs, ministers, party leaders, family members and even the Rashtrapati.  Mr Mukherjee has reminded us that the tradition not only continues but is getting stronger!