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Explained: Rajasthan phone tapping case, and why the BJP wants CBI probe

What is the phone tapping case? What are the BJP’s accusations? What is the Gehlot government's explanation?

Written by Hamza Khan , Edited by Explained Desk | Jaipur |
March 18, 2021 1:49:17 pm
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Deputy Chief Ministe Sachin Pilot in Jaipur in Jannuary 2021. (Express Photo by Rohit Jain Paras)

For the past several days, ever since the Rajasthan government of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot accepted that phones were tapped during last year’s political crisis, Opposition BJP has been demanding a CBI inquiry into the issue.

What is the phone tapping case?

In July-August last year, Rajasthan was rocked by a political crisis with former Deputy CM Sachin Pilot leading a rebellion of 19 Congress MLAs.

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Behind the rebellion were ‘leaked’ phone call recordings, allegedly of Union Jal Shakti Minster and Rajasthan MP, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, then Rajasthan’s Tourism minister Vishvendra Singh and Congress MLA Bhanwar Lal Sharma – both Pilot camp MLAs – with some middlemen, including Sanjay Jain. A day after the audio clips went public, the Special Operations Group (SOG) of Rajasthan police lodged an FIR against Sharma, one “Gajendra Singh”, among others, on the basis of audio clips, for allegedly trying to engineer toppling of Rajasthan government. The cases were eventually transferred to the Anti-Corruption Bureau where they’re still under investigation.

The issue surfaced for the second time in August last year, when Pilot camp accused Gehlot of tapping phones of some MLAs within his camp who were staying at a resort in Jaisalmer.

“Four jammers have also been installed at Suryagarh resort by Ajaib Electronics and there is just one place in the entire hotel from where calls can be made,” Pilot camp had claimed, sharing a document purportedly showing a list of calls made to some Gehlot camp MLAs, including cabinet minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal, as well as MLAs Rohit Bohra, Zahida Khan, Arjun Singh Bamniya, Virendra Singh and Baljeet Yadav.

The Pilot camp had also claimed that calls made through hotel’s intercom system are being recorded as well, with its list mentioning some purported intercom numbers, and that the entire exercise is being monitored from a hotel in Jaipur’s Mansarover locality with “top police officials” and “two private officials of a telecom company.”

However, in a statement, Rajasthan police had “clarified” that “no unit of Rajasthan Police is involved in tapping (phones) of any MLA or MP and nor was it conducted earlier.”

Subsequently, on October 1, an FIR was filed at Jaipur’s Vidhayak Puri police station against Pilot’s aide Lokendra Singh and Aaj Tak’s Rajasthan Editor Sharat Kumar, where they were accused of spreading “misleading and fake news” regarding the accusations made in August. However, in December, Rajasthan Police filed an FR in the case saying that “origin” of the WhatsApp texts – on the basis of which FIR was filed – “could not be established.”

Former Deputy CM of Rajasthan Sachin Pilot addressing the media at his residence on his arrival to Jaipur. (Express photo)

What is the present phone tapping controversy about?

Earlier this week, the issue rocked the state for the third time with a break in The Indian Express on March 15, where it was reported that the government has accepted that phones were tapped during the political crisis last year.

The confirmation was posted on the website of the Rajasthan Assembly in reply to a question asked during the Assembly session of August 2020.

BJP MLA Kalicharan Saraf, who was Health Minister in the government of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, had asked: “Is it true that phone tapping cases have come up in the last days? If yes, under which law and on whose orders? Place full details on the table of the House.”

In its reply, given after a delay of several months, the government said: “In the interest of public safety or public order, and to prevent the occurrence of a crime which might risk public safety or public order, telephones are intercepted after an approval by a competent officer under the provisions of section 5(2) of The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and section 419 (A) of The Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules, 2007, as well as section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

“Telephone interception [in this case] has been done by the Rajasthan Police under the above provision and only after obtaining permission from the competent officer.”

The government has not specified the telephone numbers that were intercepted, and the time for which they were put under surveillance. It simply says “interception cases are reviewed by Chief Secretary, Rajasthan, who presides [over the meetings] as per rules. All cases till November 2020 have been reviewed.”

Ashok Gehlot, Sachin Pilot Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with his former deputy Sachin Pilot. Express Photo: Amit Mehra

What are the BJP’s accusations?

In the Assembly on Wednesday, Leader of Opposition Gulab Chand Kataria said that on 18th July, 2020, the state’s Home Secretary – the person who has to authorise phone tapping – said that he has no knowledge of phone tapping. The same day, the Chief Secretary also said that he has no such knowledge, Kataria said.

During the crisis, the CM had also said that no phones of public representatives were tapped and that he will resign if the allegations are proved. He, however, had not said that phones were not tapped at all.

However, BJP has been interpreting CM’s statements to claim that the CM meant that no phones were tapped at all. Kataria said, “Now, when the CM, CS and the Home Secretary denied that phones were tapped, then how were phones tapped?”

The BJP has also been training their guns at CM’s Officer on Special Duty, Lokesh Sharma.

“I believe that CM’s OSD Sharma made three (audio) clips viral. Those clips contained who (Union Minister) Gajendra (Singh Shekhawat) ji spoke to, who (Congress MLA) Bhanwarlal (Sharma) spoke to, who (then Tourism Minister) Vishvendra Singh ji spoke to. And then this was made the basis of FIR lodged with Special Operations Group (SOG) by government Chief Whip (Mahesh Joshi). Now who gave the OSD any right to make such a clip, make it go viral, and then get the Chief Whip to file an FIR,” Kataria said.

Deputy Leader of Opposition Rajendra Rathore said that once the contents of audio clips were published, Rajasthan Police sent notices to Rajasthan Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar asking them the basis of the audio clips. He said the newspapers replied that the audio clips were issued to them through a phone number belonging to “OSD to CM, Lokesh Sharma”.

What is the government’s explanation?

The government has simply said that phones of some persons – who are not public representatives – were being intercepted last year following intelligence inputs when their conversations with politicians also came tumbling out.

In his reply to the debate on the phone tapping issue on Wednesday, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shanti Dhariwal said that the Centre and state governments are authorised to preserve public order and prevent a crime from taking place. He said that it was in that context that police officials were granted authorisation to intercept phones of Ashok Singh and Bharat Malani over “illegal weapons and explosives”.

“They are not public representatives. When phones of these two were intercepted, the political conversations too came up, where they were talking about exchange of money, toppling of the government,” Dhariwal said.

On CM’s OSD, he said, “If Lokesh Sharma gets something and forwards it on a WhatsApp group, what sin has he committed? Don’t you do it too? And why shouldn’t he send?…You say he made it viral, why shouldn’t he make it viral? You say that Lokesh Sharma made the clippings. Give evidence.”

So why is the BJP insisting on a CBI probe?

Following the controversy, BJP’s central leadership directed its state unit to raise the issue prominently.

The party disrupted the Assembly on Tuesday and Speaker C P Joshi agreed to a debate on the issue on Wednesday. After the debate, the BJP again disrupted the Assembly briefly and demanded a CBI probe.

With Joshi running the House strictly, the BJP has had limited options inside the Assembly; Joshi also suspended BJP MLA Madan Dilawar from the Assembly for a week after he disrupted speech by independent MLA Sanyam Lodha, considered close to CM; the suspension was later withdrawn.

Moreover, the government has challenged that not just the CM, but all Congress MLAs will resign if the charges that phone of any public representative was tapped.

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Next, under section 419 (A) of The Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules, 2007, the records pertaining to directions for interception, and of intercepted messages are to be destroyed every six months, unless needed for “functional requirements.”

The service providers too have to “destroy records pertaining to directions for interception of message within two months of discontinuance of the interception of such messages and in doing so they shall maintain extreme secrecy,” the Rules say.

It has little wiggle space inside the Assembly, but outside, the BJP can do with an issue that might help its prospects in the by-polls for three Assembly seats, which were declared on Tuesday. By focusing on a demand for a CBI probe, BJP hopes that the phone tapping issue sustains in the consciousness of the voters. It is for the same reason that BJP on Wednesday launched a social media hashtag: #Gehlot_CallGate.

Another reason is that audio clips of Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had been leaked in the crisis last year, embarrassing him and the party. Shekhawat is considered to be in the running for the CM post in 2023, and thus, by remaining on top of the narrative regarding phone tapping, the BJP hopes to undo the taint on Shekhawat and send a message that its leaders were targets of unauthorised phone tapping by the Congress government.

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