Cloak-and-dagger politics

S.Madhusudhana Rao

Avid readers and viewers of American spy thrillers in print and on screen may find the ongoing drama being played out by the two Telugu regional parties Telugu Desam and Telangana Rashtra Samithi more intriguing than the fictitious characters created by the world’s best known authors in the field.

S.Madhusudhana Rao

S.Madhusudhana Rao

While we can’t jump to conclusions when the issue is in the hands of investigating agencies and the judicial authorities, what is clear is political skullduggery has descended to a new low after the bifurcation of the Telugu State last year. With friends turning foes and foes turning friends, and the two ruling parties in Telangana and the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh are at daggers drawn. In such a scenario, it is but natural to see party leaders and their satraps sniping at each other without rhyme and reason. But the latest episode of what is alleged to be cash-for-vote has brought out the sordid state of politics in the Telugu states and the no-holds-barred horse-trading for a single vote in the election to the Telangana Legislative Council.

Whether TDP strongman in Telangana Revanth Reddy had tried to buy out a nominated MLA Elvis Stephenson by allegedly offering lakhs of bribe and rumoured crores of rupees later is not the point here; but the methods used to ‘trap’ the accused and the allegations flying across the AP-Telangana border.

It is a Gandhian question of means and ends. In an age where the end result is more important than what means are used, every act –fair or foul –is justified. Nobody can claim high moral ground when it is slippery. If caution is thrown to the wind and the honey-traps are overlooked, the trekker is bound to slip and fall.

That can be disastrous. In the world of espionage, the common lingo used for operatives is informers, agents and double agents who cross and double cross for pecuniary gains. The inherent nature of their work involves risk to life and limb. In olden days, the practitioners of this cloak-and-dagger profession, that is as ancient as the humanity itself, were hunted targets by opponents. If they escaped with vital information they would be amply rewarded by their patrons; but if they failed in their mission and were caught, the secret agents would be made to cough up through torture. Needless to say, they were exposed to the outside world and their life ended in the hands of a hangman or a firing squad.

Such grimy episodes were common during the Cold War when mistrust and mutual fear of one superpower gobbling up the other was common. Now, thanks to secret eyes in the skies and the digital communication revolution, the physical presence of spies has become minimal. In fact, their presence, in various avatars from social workers to diplomats, is known to authorities. Since every country tries to collect as much data as possible through their ‘secret men’ about other countries, the intelligence gathering activity is universally acknowledged and accepted. In other words, sophistication has replaced brutality. Only when the men/women in the dark cross the unspecified boundaries of their work they are sent back to their native countries as persona non grata.

This is all in international arena. What about at national level involving rival political parties and ruling elites and opposition and their leading lights? Have we not heard of stalwarts of every political denomination complaining that their phones had been tapped and offices bugged? Have we not read about legislators and parliamentarians alleging that they had been ‘shadowed’ by intelligence officials on the suspicion of anti-party activities?

It is happening not only in India but everywhere else. The most famous case of political espionage in world history so far is the 1972 Watergate scandal in the US. Republican Richard Nixon had to pay with his presidency for ordering wire-tapping of Democratic headquarters in Washington. Russian President Vladimir Putin is often accused of using official machinery to snoop on opponents. China is no exception. WikiLeaks has exposed how the Big Brother America, with its vast terrestrial and satellite networks keeps a tab on almost all countries and their leaders and intercepts their communication networks illegally. All in the interest of the US and the world!

In a way, the business of intelligence gathering, once exclusively confined to national security and defence has forayed into every sphere of our lives – from politics to bedrooms. Armed with nano-technology and aided by sophisticated electronic equipment, none –and nothing –is beyond the reach of secret, secure and discreet operation.

No doubt, we cry foul when CCTV cameras set up to catch shop-lifters in glitzy shopping malls are used to video customers in changing rooms. It’s blatant misuse of a facility by uncouth staff to satisfy their vicarious pleasures or to make money out of the clips.

If similar methods are used to silence political opponents and browbeat them, it is seen as a warning signal to others not to indulge in unfair practices. However, the million dollar question is will such cloak-and-dagger methods cleanse the Indian polity?

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