On 27 December 2002, Reliance Infocomm was launched with a phone call from then telecom minister Pramod Mahajan to prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The minister compared Reliance’s high-tech empire to the NASA space station. That was also the day when friction between the Ambani brothers first became public with the conspicuous absence of Anil Ambani at the function. Soon enough, a full-fledged war was being fought through the pages of newspapers and magazines. The dirt that spilled out subsequently included information that Pramod Mahajan was given a 1% stake in Reliance Infocomm, allegedly in exchange for permission to launch a wireless in local loop (WLL) without paying the appropriate licence fee.
The dubious share allotment to Mr Mahajan was withdrawn, given to an alleged associate and soon became the subject of a major income-tax investigation. Many more details about other shady transactions and diversion of funds became public as the Ambani brothers spewed venom at each other. That was the exact period (2002-2006) when Essar was allegedly recording the scandalous deal-making of the entire top brass of Reliance with their neta and babu friends to bury a securities scam investigation by the joint parliamentary committee (JPC), or interfere in a murder investigation, or fix prices for their telecom operations.
And, yet, when Reliance Infocomm was launched, corporate India was wary about subscribing to its attractive offers, precisely because of fears about phone-tapping. It is hugely ironical that the Ambanis, who ought to be under tight security cover, were completely exposed to private phone-taps, despite having moles and tentacles in all seven government agencies that were officially permitted to tap phones a decade ago.
Why were the tapes buried for a decade? I find it hard to believe that the Ambanis were clueless, because even I was cautioned by well-wishers about my phones being tapped in that period. I attempted to check it out through a source in the enforcement directorate who told me how things really work in the snooping business. Since the home ministry had a strict procedure to permit phone-tapping (it is now done through a Central monitoring agency), the government agencies had found a dubious shortcut, he said.
In violation of home ministry orders, several private investigation agencies imported high-tech telecom surveillance equipment under false import classification. Private investigators claim to use it to track down errant husbands and cheating wives. But the police and investigative agencies turn a blind eye to their activities in return for conducting illegal phone-taps for them. A decade ago, my source said that only six private agencies were involved in such tapping and that my phone numbers were not in their list.
Now that technological advances have made phone-tapping, and even video-tapping, more sophisticated, how widespread is the use of spyware in corporate warfare and political blackmail? A source, heading the security at a leading telecom company, says that it is, indeed, widespread because equipment is far easier to procure. Moreover, the sale of bulk SIM cards and numbered SIM cards also continues unabated, despite tightening of identification and KYC (know your customer) rules. This is primarily because successive governments have not had the inclination to ensure a real clean-up that would mean a war on India’s widespread corruption.