Ratan Tata’s Supreme Court petition on the Niira Radia tapes could muzzle India

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Tata’s move can have far-reaching consequences for Indian democracy and has triggered a crucial debate on what constitutes privacy and under what circumstances it should be sacrificed for public interest

Shoma Chaudhury

Ratan N. Tata
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

THE DIZZYING events of the last two weeks have demanded a grave degree of mirrorgazing from many sections of Indian society. No section in the queue ought to have found a pleasing picture. Much has already been said about the fungal state of Indian media. A little has been said about the venality of our politicians, bureaucrats and pockets of the judiciary. But unfortunately, almost nothing has been said about the big elephant in the room: corporate conduct.

It’s dismaying then that, going by Ratan Tata’s public stances, it would seem this section is still viewing itself through an uncritically golden gauze. Tata — widely deemed a corporate czar par excellence — has taken two stands since the Niira Radia tapes became public. One, in an interview to Shekhar Gupta, editor, Indian Express, he has bemoaned the “banana republic kind of attack on whoever one chooses” the tapes triggered. He’s warned those who leaked the tapes that they stand in danger of destroying the nation by clouding the ‘investment climate’ and has asserted that such people should “consider themselves not as heroes of the nation but in fact as one of the villains who would bring down this nation after the good that is being done”. Disappointingly, he also said that “a banana republic kind of an environment could emerge” not from the excesses of crony capitalism but, to quote, “if we don’t put an end to this kind of thing [ie, leaking phone taps] and under the guise of freedom of speech or the guise of many other so-called rights of democracy, we abuse the luxury of a democracy”.

Tata has backed this unexpected sentiment with a petition in the Supreme Court seeking to block the publication of any further tapes or transcripts that might emerge (only 104 out of an estimated 5,800 phone taps have been leaked) and asking that all existing tapes and transcripts should immediately be withdrawn as an infringement on his right to privacy. Following his request, the government has ordered an investigation into who leaked the tapes. Tata’s move can have far-reaching consequences for Indian democracy and has triggered a crucial debate on what constitutes privacy and under what circumstances it should be sacrificed for public interest.

There is a powerful X-factor that catalyses punishment and redressal in India: public opinion. Whistleblowing is a key part of that process

At a purely human level, it is easy to commiserate with Tata’s feelings: anyone would concede it is mortifying to have private conversations — of any nature — exposed for public viewing. There are tonalities we use in private we would not deploy in public and, under other circumstances, many vexed questions would arise from the publication of tapped phone conversations. But the issue here is not individual mortification; it is the health of the nation. And especially in the Niira Radia tapes, the question of privacy and public interest does not seem a very complicated one.

To understand this, one must recall what is now already widely known. Except for an extremely tiny percentage — casual talk of a Jaguar and a black gown, for instance — none of the Niira Radia conversations are about personal issues: instead, they expose the debilitating overlaps that have built up between the media, vested corporate interests and government policy. Tata’s assertion that these tapes infringe his privacy does not hold good because Radia is not talking about personal affairs or even about intra-corporate strategy: balance sheets, the takeover of other companies or shareholder agreements. Nor is she an aisle spectator indulging in idle gossip. She is a powerful corporate lobbyist whose conversations are largely focussed on five issues: the gassharing dispute between the Ambani brothers; the allocation of spectrum; the process of Cabinet formation; the manipulation of the media; and the wielding of influence on bureaucrats and politicians. All of these pertain to public interest: they involve the corporate use of national resources and the functioning of public servants and institutions of democracy. By virtue of the fact that Radia formally held many Tata accounts and Tata Telecom is among the many telecom companies that benefited from former telecom minister A Raja’s policies, both Tata and Radia become fair game for public scrutiny.

This brings one to Tata’s other argument in the petition. His contention is that even if phone taps become necessary for any investigative agency, the findings should either be restricted to the original mandate of the investigation, or be pursued solely by an investigative agency and there should be a penal clause against any disclosures — both for those who disclose and those who publish them. His argument is that no whistleblower should be allowed to turn private conversations — even if they pertain to public interest — into a media circus. The country must rely on its institutions.

WHILE THIS would be an ideal situation, even a tyro knows this is a naïve dream. In fact, ironically, the Radia tapes themselves show why Tata’s arguments are flawed and can have grave repercussions for Indian democracy. Everything in the Indian experience — reaffirmed dolefully by the conversations in the tapes — shows us that we cannot rely solely on our investigative agencies, institutions and elected bodies to acquit their duties and uphold national interest. At some point or the other, everyone and everything is compromised and vulnerable to political and corporate influence.

This year alone the CBI — the premier investigative agency in the country — has come under repeated cloud for being politically manipulated to let off some wrongdoers and go after others. The CVC head PJ Thomas is at the centre of a controversy. LIC officials have been taking kickbacks. The army’s top brass has been found involved in a scam. The Adarsh Housing scam papers have disappeared from government offices. The Supreme Court has censured the Allahabad High Court for being “rotten”. The Reddy brothers in Karnataka have carried on with impunity though Lokayukta Santosh Hegde has exposed their criminal wrong-doing in mining. Suresh Kalmadi and company were allowed to go unchecked for years though everyone in the establishment must have known what was going on. And like Kalmadi, A Raja was not sacked till the CAG report was made public and there was a volcanic media outcry — though both the PMO and telecom regulatory body TRAI had been repeatedly warned of the scam from 2007 itself.

So, hard as the truth might be, the fact is that in most cases there is a powerful X-factor that catalyses punishment and redressal in India: public opinion. It is public outcry that forces — or shames — individuals and institutions to act according to their moral briefs. Whistleblowing is a key component in that process. If Tata’s petition forecloses this option, it will set a terrible precedent. Indian democracy will be compromised.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court itself is aghast by the tenor of the Radia tapes and what they reveal about then nature of our society. A couple of days ago, the judges hearing a PIL on the 2G scam filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan said the Radia tapes are “mind-boggling”. Reputed lawyers like Ram Jethmalani, Kamini Jaiswal, Sanjay Parikh and Bhushan himself are certain the contents of the tapes are of public interest and override any concerns about intrusion into privacy.

Tata, therefore, is faced with an uncommon challenge: an invitation to mirror-gaze, like the rest of us, without the golden gauze. This challenge is not for him alone, but for the entire corporate community. In the Indian Express interview, Tata spoke wistfully about sitting on top of a summit just a couple of weeks ago, taking in President Obama’s praise for all the good work done and for being an emerged nation not an emerging one. But he would do well to reconsider a lot of what he said. There is no taking away from the positives of what either Tata himself — or the Indian business community — has achieved in the past few decades. But perhaps their ideas of nation-building and justice have to expand a little. When his Nano factory was repulsed from Singur, Tata had written an open letter to the people of Bengal rebuking them for their indiscipline and unruliness. What he forgot to mention was that until the people of Singur and Nandigram rebelled and gave their blood to defend their land, neither the Indian Parliament nor the corporate czars who were “building India” had bothered to even draft a Relief and Rehabilitation Bill that would ensure those who were turfed out of their land through the draconian Land Acquisition Act would get their due. It took the unruly people of Bengal to ensure that. The point is, public outcry can often be the most crucial brick of a democracy. And the key to social justice.

The Radia tapes have challenged all our rosy notions of self. Given Tata’s stature and the group’s inherited reputation for ethical corporate behaviour, one would have looked to him, at this difficult time, to set the bar for transparency for his community, no matter how personally mortifying the process might be.

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