Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why leak the Radia Tapes? It's time to talk motive

More important even than who leaked the tapes may be another question: why?

It is illegal to leak government secrets.  This is true in every country in the world, and there are a lot of really good reasons for it: governments--like businessmen, lawyers, and mental health professionals--sometimes need to do things confidentially.

Of course there are times when breaking the law is called for in order to prevent something terrible from happening. It is OK to break the speed limit, if you need to get a dying man to the hospital. It is OK to reveal confidential documents that will prevent large scale theft or corruption; and following orders is no excuse for committing or aiding in the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

We don't know who leaked the Radia Tapes yet, but they probably could have come from one of only three places: the Finance Ministry, the Home Ministry, or the Prime Minister's Office. Who knows? Not me.  But a lot of people like me have been assuming that whoever leaked the Radia Tapes has done us all a great favor by shining the light on some very bad things, and that he or she did so for reasons having something to do with an admirable desire to set wrong things right.

I think I even said something like that at a party recently, and the politically savvy people I was talking with promptly set me straight--after they had a good laugh at my expense. Sure, this leak has revealed some ugly truths we should all know about. And yes, it could have been motivated by a love for truth, justice and Mother India. But there are other, more plausible reasons why someone in a high place may have wanted this information public. Today, I'll list three. There are probably many more, but I've forgotten what they might be. If you've got a good one, why not add it in the comments? Of course, this is all just idle speculation. But remember, motive is something every crime show detective knows to look for, and it seems to work for them!

Damage control: A lot of money was lost to the public in the 2G scandal.  In a previous post, we laid out just how much 1.76 lakh crore rupees really is in terms we can all understand.  For now, let's just say the 2G scam will likely turn out to be the largest in modern Indian history. Whoever leaked the tapes knew that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report was going to make a lot of people look very, very bad. Not just people in the Telecom Ministry, but people in Finance and even in the PMO. The Radia Tapes help to focus public outrage on A. Raja and the Telecom guys. The tapes framed the story, so as to crop out certain very, very important people.

Coalition politics: The Radia Tapes made it possible for Congress to sack A. Raja, putting the blame on him only, while keeping the DMK in the UPA coalition. Presumably the DMK is not just worried about its electoral position in Tamil Nadu and its friendship with Congress, but also whether the CBI and friends have any dirt that goes beyond Raja. If that were the case, they would pretty much need to keep their mouths shut, wouldn't they?.

Get even with the press: A lot of dirt came out in the coverage of the CWG mess. Feelings got hurt. Maybe it's payback time. The first batch of Radia tapes were carefully edited in such a way as to insure the media got it's well-deserved share of the blame for this whole ugly affair. Blaming the media is also a form of damage control, because if you can spread dirt on everyone, then the public is left feeling there is really no alternative to dirty politics and dirty business. Ratan Tata's recent effort to slam the BJP in this context is a variant of this game.

So what to do? I agree with the editors of The Hindu on this one: A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is imperative at this point. It's hard to see what Congress gains by trying to delay this indefinitely, unless they feel UPA II wouldn't be able to withstand the truth--in that case, they've got nothing to lose by delaying except whatever public trust they've still got. 

Beyond the JPC, we have to hope that there is a thorough house cleaning, where people who are found responsible--be they members of the government, the media, or India Inc.--go to prison for long terms. You just can't fight corruption of this magnitude by giving middle level bureaucrats a few years in jail; you have to go after the big guys and you have to lock them up for long periods of time if they are found guilty. Otherwise, the temptation to play dirty will continue to be irresistible. And dirty business, dirty media, dirty government is a big part of what is killing democracy in this country.

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