The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The advent of electronic eavesdropping in political campaigns

The campaigns conducted by different political parties in the recent elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi have brought to public notice the use of advanced electronic technology by politicians for various purposes. I am not referring to the celebrated laptops reportedly used by Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and the other nerds in the Bharatiya Janata Party — the Congress party still seems to rely on notes and gossip — nor to the electronic voting machines. I mean the electronic spying devices, the hidden cameras and recording devices which appear to have caught Dilip Singh Judeo in a rather awkward moment, and the audio device which seems to have Ajit Jogi saying things he really shouldn’t have been saying, not for the record, to coin a phrase.

The devices aren’t new; they’ve been used by journalists all over the world and we have seen for ourselves how used them to great effect. But this time we have been told by politicians how they were used in what are generally called “sting” operations. It’s true that the Judeo videotape was given to a newspaper; but the intention in making the recording was clearly political and the people behind it are quite obviously politicians.

One isn’t going into the morality of this; much has been written about it, and no doubt there will be many others who will express their reaction to what was done, compare it, as others have, to the Tehelka sting operation and draw various conclusions. One is actually more fascinated by the advent of electronic eavesdropping in political campaigns. Clearly we’re seeing the beginning of a whole new dimension to election campaigning, and 2004 is bound to produce many and perhaps even more startling instances of this new aspect of politics.

Of course, what Messrs Judeo and Jogi did has been done by politicians as a matter of routine for decades. But this is the first time we’re actually seeing it or hearing it on tape. We’ve been able to put our eyes — and in Jogi’s case, our ears — to the keyhole. What was supposed to have been happening in the squalid backroom of politics has suddenly come out on a brightly lit stage. And these are very simple instances of eavesdropping. Hidden cameras, hidden tape recorders. It’s almost childish.

Consider the possibilities which now open up for the political parties that will be campaigning in the next general elections. Satellite spy cameras can look right into bedrooms and isolated locations, wherever they are, and pick up perfectly clear footage of what’s going on there; there are listening devices so sensitive that all they need is to have their antennae point at the place where something interesting is being discussed or transacted, and even if it is across a street or in a car, wherever, they can pick up every word.

Most of us have seen Will Smith in Enemy Of The State, so we know what satellite cameras and listening devices can do. It is equally possible, as we know, again, to track phone calls and numbers, and so find out who’s been talking to whom and when. In other words, no one in politics is going to have a private life any more. Not if his opponent doesn’t want him to. Not if he’s doing something his opponent wants everyone to know about.

And that, of course, is the key. The possibility of making it all public. The possibility of letting the stung one know what’s been recorded and what will happen if he doesn’t cooperate. In other words, we will move from looking forward to being entertained by the actions and words of various prominent people handed out as CDs or VCDs to the public, to watching various political personages acting in strange ways, issuing startling statements, suddenly making new friends and allies or equally suddenly breaking from them. Of course, it works not just both ways but every possible way. Blackmail will walk hand in hand with the exposure of improper behaviour.

It would be tempting to think that the prospect of all this happening — which the bright-eyed ones in the BJP and perhaps in other parties must have worked out already — would make politicians and prospective election candidates more circumspect. But the fact is it’ll have only a marginal effect on their behaviour. For two reasons. One is the fact that we, as a people, have a very complex set of values; they’re not quite as simple as the Victorian virtues that were instilled into our parents and grandparents. The Judeo videotape had no effect on the results in Chhattisgarh, and the Congress clearly made sure everyone knew ab- out it. So mere exposure of some kinds of activities is not going to make much of a difference. The other is the fact that the leaders of the parties concerned will stoutly defend their flock, however errant. Yes, Sonia Gandhi threw Ajit Jogi into the outer darkness, but not for having tried to bribe some BJP members of legislative assembly, whatever they may say now; it was because he gave that all-important letter of Congress support to the seemingly disgruntled BJP MLAs without her approval. And look how a person as personally clean as Atal Bihari Vajpayee has come to the defence of Dilip Singh Judeo; the Central Bureau of Investigation could not establish a case against him, he said. Indeed.

And let’s not forget that electronic eavesdropping can be foiled by electronic counter-measures. So some deeds which are dark enough to warrant it, will be shielded from satellite cameras and listening devices. In other words, the essential business of politics will continue. The difference will be that it will be more expensive to continue, but with all these bundles of currency notes being handed around, who cares about expenses'

Naturally, the shielding can only be for the very dark deeds and words; for everything else there will have to be recourse to greater stealth and secrecy. Subterfuge and deceit will become a standard part of political dealings to an even greater extent than it is today. In fact, one could go so far as to say that only those politicians will survive who are the most skilful at lying, deceit and secrecy. The more open, frank ones will, one fears, go to the wall. Perhaps, then, the Arun Jaitleys and Pramod Mahajans will have to make way for a newer, more artful, lot; those who can do all that these two can and at the same time camouflage what they do with what Le Carré called a “legend” — a whole set of falsehoods, convincing lies and deceptions, behind which will lie the real plan of action.

Politics may then have to be redefined as the art of the technologically possible. Something that will leave the people much more bewildered and mystified than they already are. They will be led to believe one set of “facts” and the reality will be something else. Which is a prospect that cannot bring cheer to anyone, except that there’s a little flaw in all this. One look at the forecasts made of the election results by well-known psephologists and at the results declared after the exit polls makes this clear. Collectively, the people who were surveyed by the experts made fools of them; and consequently, most of the poll surveys got it wrong. While that may have had to do with some error in computing, it seems more likely that the seemingly simple, bewildered people inundated with the real and mythical stories, figures and information cooked up by the backroom boys just took them for a ride. Technology may yet founder on native cleverness and cynicism.

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