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Smell of suspicion

By Rajiv Shah
Last week, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi hosted a sumptuous dinner for the state’s top officialdom based in Gandhinagar. I knew in advance that, ahead of the dinner, there was going to be some speechifying – at least two senior-most officials, Gujarat chief secretary AK Joti, and his No 2, additional chief secretary, planning, Varun Maira, were to be fielded to speak on the Modi miracle, on why other states should “replicate” Gujarat model. Modi was jittery. Officials say, the dinner was in retaliation of 2,025 Sachivalaya babus’ pre-assembly poll signature campaign demanding pay hike, warning him, they are not alone, they are backed by five in the family, and their “support” can multiply. As would happen with any newsperson, I curiously tried to phone up and dig out what exactly had happened at the dinner, which Modi termed Vikas Ni Suhas, or Fragrance of Development. Late in the evening, I got return phone call from one of the participants. “Good food, but speeches were boring. There were too many statistics. But what puzzled us was – the presence of each of us was marked. The general administration department had prepared a list of officials who were called, and a tick was marked against the name of every official who entered in”, this official said.
When I wished to know more, this official remarked, “Rajiv, you know, our phones are tapped. I think, this conversation may have also begun being tapped. Let’s talk one-on-one.” We hung the phone. This was not for the first time what a senior Gujarat bureaucrat was complaining that his phone “may have been tapped.” A few days earlier, a senior official working in a blue-chip public sector undertaking (I am deliberately not naming the PSU, lest this official would be easily identified) had something very similar to tell me. He said, “You are always welcome, but I have stopped picking up your and your colleagues’ phones, because I have the lurking suspicion that someone is trying to find out who all I talk to, whether it was I who was passing on any information." I asked him who this someone could be, and he named a top Modi minister. “Why take risk? Let me be satisfied with my work”, he said. There is nothing new in all this. A senior bureaucrat, before moving to Delhi on deputation in 2008, would occasionally tell me: “I would request you to come and see me after office hours. During day time, your presence is marked and reported, as if I am passing on some crucial information to you.” I never believed him, but this bureaucrat also wouldn’t talk on mobile, citing phone tapping.
Suspicion of phone tapping in the state babudom is not new. Those who believed that their phones were being tapped include two former senior bureaucrats who headed – imagine! – the state home department. One of them is retired and is serving on post-retirement job, and the other, if Sachivalaya buzz is any guide, is tipped to be Gujarat’s next chief secretary. Both of them are known for their excellent administrative skills, and both have told me in no uncertain terms that they had “stopped” picking up my phones on joining home as they feared tapping. While one of them said, “Who knows what devices are installed where, so it is better to be careful”, the other one told me that he had seen the demonstration of an Israeli phone tapping device, shown to him in the presence of former Modi minister Amit Shah and several other police officials. He added, though as an afterthought, looking at me beyond his specs, “I don’t know if the device was installed.”
Around the same time when Modi was hosting Fragrance of Development for the Gandhinagar babudom, I chanced upon a video on Youtube, where senior economist Bibek Debroy spoke as guest speaker at the Friends of BJP gathering in US, called to celebrate Modi’s birthday – September 17. All know Debroy as long-time protege of Modi, ever since he was with Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies and Research – when he declared Gujarat’s economic freedom index as the best in the country. What he wrote was widely publicized by Modi’s propaganda machine. Same this time around – the Youtube video was promptly put on all of Modi’s numerous websites. When I was watching him on Youtube, his economic logic, based on Gujarat’s rate of growth, didn’t interest me as much as the reason he gave to prove what he had to say on “Gujarat miracle’s enabling environment” – that Modi has “empowered” Gujarat bureaucracy, that the state babudom acts without any political interference, and that the administration has become truly decentralized. Debroy’s remark prompted me to email a question to him as to what he had to say about Gujarat’s “empowered” babudom in the context of the way Modi’s handpicked babus are made to handle 2002 riot cases, involvement of several top cops in gruesome fake encounters, and the probe into a Modi minister’s direct hand. A clever economist, he knows he shouldn’t be “misunderstood” about his support to Modi. This is what Debroy replied: “I take your point. Perhaps I should have qualified. I meant in the context of development programmes (sic! not Gujarat’s growth story!). Tenures, transfers, postings, decisions, that kind of thing. And in that context.”
In case Debroy had interacted with state babus he would have known better. It’s common knowledge in Sachivalaya how, before being posted as district collector, Porbandar, HN Chhibber was asked by a top Narendra Modi aide, who happens to be one of the senior-most IAS bureaucrats, to “dig out” facts against senior Congressman Arjun Modhwadia. Known for his no-nonsense approach, Chhibber chanced upon a huge mining scam, instead, and involvement of a former minister of Modi’s Cabinet, Babubhai Bokhiriya. With this began Chhibber’s travails. On the last day of his retirement in November 2011, Modi’s men acted quickly to chargesheet him for his “involvement” in a decade-old debris removal scam in quake-hit Kutch. On Modi’s advice, the government also served a chargesheet on a young IAS official Rajiv Topno, who served as district development officer about the same time when Chhibber was Kutch collector, and is now in the Prime Minister’s Office. There is nothing new about chargesheeting officials like this. A retired bureaucrat, JS Rana would have served as Gujarat chief secretary if he was not forced to put in his papers in 2007. His mistake: He refused free State Transport buses for Modi’s Gaurav Yatra in 2002. An inquiry was institute, which hasn’t yet been fully closed, though he has been cleared by Central Administrative Tribunal.
There are, of course, senior IAS officials who have gone very, very close to Modi by toeing his line. One of them is his longest-serving principal secretary, K Kailashnathan. On poll eve, Modi is taking his services to approach district revenue and forest officials in order to “activate” them to distribute forest land among the tribals. On weekdays he is in Sachivalaya. But a senior official revealed, every Saturday and Sunday he goes to some tribal area or the other in order to organize land for the tribals, though official documents, quoting satellite imagery, suggest that 90 per cent of the tribal claims are “false”. Another IAS official, Vipul Mittra, using his Bollywood contacts, even today takes pride of how he “organized” Amitabh Bacchan for Modi’s tourism ads. “Bacchan was about to back out when controversy about his relations with Modi erupted. I used my connections to bring him back”, Mittra declares now. Mittra, significantly, also “organized” a big chunk of land for Bacchan near the proposed Gujarat International Finance Tec-city (GIFT), the new real estate hub near Ahmedabad. “Modi deputed me to do all the paper work”, he says.
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https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/true-lies/smell-of-suspicion/

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