War of words between NDA and UPA over privacy verdict

Krishnanand Tripathi
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Supreme Court’s landmark judgement holding the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the article 21 of the Indian constitution immediately triggered a war of words between the BJP and Congress with both the parties using the verdict to take pot-shots at each other.

While Congress was quick to take the lead as official twitter handle of Congress  Vice President Rahul Gandhi used the decision to target the government.

Rahul tweeted: “SC decision marks a major blow to fascist forces. A sound rejection of the BJP’s ideology of suppression through surveillance.”

Kapil Sibal, former law minister during the previous UPA government and a Rajya Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh joined Rahul in using the judgement to attack the government. Sibal tweeted: “Privacy a fundamental right says Supreme Court . Sanctity of the home protected. Big blow to fascist forces .”

Unsettled by the ferocity of the attack of the Congress using a court judgement to paint it in a negative light the government was equally quick to rebut the charges. Union law minister Ravishankar Prasad accused the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi of speaking without doing home work, saying he should know that his party’s governments at the Centre have argued that privacy is not part of any constitutional guarantee.

Prasad said: “Rahul Gandhi has accused us of bringing fascist regime… it is his habit of speaking without home work. Senior Congress leaders have also started speaking without doing their home work… what has been the record of the Congress in protecting individual liberties was seen during Emergency. The issue of personal liberty had a chequered history during the previous Congress governments.”

The law minister asserted: “On the other hand, we fought for freedom of judiciary, individuals and media during Emergency.”

Opposition leaders have regularly accused the government for using the investigating agencies for targeting them and also for surveillance of their activities.

Recently, in a veiled attack on the alleged use of intelligence agencies by the government, Trinmool Congress Chief and West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee dubbed the central government as a “government of the agencies and government by the agencies.”

However, surveillance is a tricky issue for any government to deal with as it is also required for protection of national security or for preventing the cases of tax evasion and checking corruption.

This was clearly articulated by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh following the biggest phone tapping expose in the country involving the controversial lobbyist Niira Radia and top industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists.

The Niira Radia episode is the biggest exposure till date about the nexus between the politicians, corporates and media that revealed not only the details of corruption and lobbying but also the powers of enforcement agencies to carry out surveillance in the country.

At that time, the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had said: We wish to provide a level playing field for private businesses, free from fear or favour. I am aware of the nervousness in some sections of the corporate sector arising out of the powers conferred upon Governmental authorities to tap phones for protecting national security and preventing tax evasion and money laundering.”

However, he assured the industry that the government will take the steps to prevent the unauthorised or intentional leaks. Dr Singh said:

“While these powers are needed in the world that we live in, they have to be exercised with utmost care and under well defined rules, procedures and mechanisms so that they are not misused. We must also look for solutions through technology to prevent access of telephone conversation to systems outside the institutional framework of government.”

Though the Congress was quick to use the privacy judgement to mount a scathing attack on the government but the sentiments expressed by Dr Manmohan Singh on 14 December 2010 certainly found an echo in the court’s landmark judgement and also in the official statement issued by the NDA government when the need for striking a balance between an individual’s right to privacy and the need to reasonably restrict them in the interest of national security was stated.