The phone-tapping controversy involving senior police officers in Karnataka has exposed the deep mistrust between the JD-S and Congress leaderships that led to the collapse of the coalition government. It has also cast the spotlight on former chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy, who is now suspected of misusing the state police to spy on politicians, legislators, bureaucrats and even journalists. Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa has said that he will ask the CBI to investigate the allegations of illegal surveillance. It is necessary that the administration comes clean on this and action is taken against officials if there has been any transgression.
It was an internal feud within the Karnataka police that brought out how officers apparently gamed the system for personal gains. The allegation is that Alok Kumar, who was appointed Bengaluru Police Commissioner by Kumaraswamy after superceding 21 officers, had ordered surveillance of several persons illegally. This came to light after a police probe, ordered after a TV channel broadcast an audio clip, allegedly of the present commissioner, Bhaskar Rao, pleading with a political fixer for favours. The police can claim it has the authority to tap the telephones of persons suspected to be a threat to the state. However, there are clear norms that regulate this authority. The preliminary probe in this case points to its gross misuse, purportedly to serve the interests of those wielding power. The fractured verdict in the assembly elections last year had forced rival political parties to stitch coalitions of convenience to form government. Bitter rivals, Congress and JD-S, had outsmarted the BJP to form a government. But soon, the JD-S and Congress started to undercut each other, which left the government exposed to the manipulations of politicians and officials. Institutions failed to act when rumours started to float about posts in the administration being auctioned and fixed for patronage and cash being offered to legislators.
Karnataka politics has been rocked by allegations of illegal phone tapping in the past as well. In 1988, then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde had to resign over a telephone tapping allegation. But the system seems to have neither put in place checks and balances nor internalised the need to respect norms in the case of surveillance.