The Manmohan Singh government was embroiled in a fresh controversy on Tuesday after its senior-most minister Pranab Mukherjee confirmed that he suspected his finance ministry offices were bugged and had sought a secret inquiry into the alleged incidents.
Already in a fire-fighting mode over the Lokpal bill, the government had to contend with the embarrassing disclosure that Mukherjee wrote to the PM about adhesive-like substance recovered from his office that might have been used to implant electronic listening devices.
BJP jumped on the matter, suggesting that rivalries between two ministries could be at the root of the spying attempt.
Mukherjee wrote to the PM in September last year after an electronic sweep conducted by the Central Board of Direct Taxes found the adhesives planted in his office, those of his advisor Omita Paul and his private secretary Manoj Pant, as well as the two conference halls of the finance ministry. Although the search conducted by CBDT did not reveal any listening device, the discovery of the glue-like substance from crucial locations in the finance ministry, suggesting a possible attempt to plant bugs in the crucial office, prompted Mukherjee to complain to the PM.
The choice of CBDT for the de-bugging operation instead of IB which has proven expertise in the field is curious. CBDT has no experience of counter-espionage and, in fact, had to engage a private agency. Tax department sources confirmed they had found adhesive-like substance in the rooms.
Significantly, while the probe conducted by IB concluded that there was no attempt to listen in to the conversations of the de facto No.2 in the government and the resinous substance was actually innocuous chewing gum, the agency hired by CBDT saw an attempt to spy on Mukherjee.
Reacting to the revelation in the media of his fear, Mukherjee made a cryptic statement. "In respect of a news item regarding bugging in my offices, the IB investigated into it and found nothing in it."
Not surprisingly, the one-line response only deepened the mystery and set out intense speculation about who might be behind the alleged bugging with suspects ranging from corporate interests to the minister's political rivals.
It also fuelled the buzz which had long simmered about rivalry between the ministries of home and finance. Congress circles have been rife with speculation about the rivalry between the two ministries.
That Mukherjee chose to depend on CBDT and not on IB which comes under the home ministry certainly provided grist to the political mill, with BJP harping on it.
Finance ministry's decision to bring in private experts seems to confirm the trust deficit between key ministries who are important constituents of the Cabinet Committee on Security. It reflects Mukherjee's strong suspicion, that the security of his office was compromised.
Those who feel the in-house espionage theory is a little stretched point out that government agencies, despite being accused of lacking finesse, do not take recourse to crude methods like planting adhesives or chewing gum to place listening devices. Technology offers better alternatives.