The Union government cannot expect the media and Parliament to remain silent on the news report that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had written Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a letter demanding an inquiry into a possible breach of security in the Union finance ministry, involving the possible placing of listening devices in the rooms of the finance minister, his personal secretary and advisor. These are key functionaries of a highly sensitive ministry. The finance ministry would rank on a par with the defence ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office as far as the need for foolproof security is concerned. Any leak of classified information and privileged conversations can have significant economic and national security ramifications. For a ministry that has the capability and experience to seal itself from the outside world at Budget time, to prevent Budget secrets from being leaked, ensuring the security of the finance minister’s room at all times should be a matter of routine and regular procedure. That this did not happen has obviously shocked the public. The government must enquire into what happened and inform Parliament and the people, reassuring them that no known harm has been done as a result of this breach. If, indeed, it is found that some harm was done, the government must take necessary action and share such information. Mr Mukherjee has termed the news reports “bogus”. If they are “bogus” then the government must sue the newspaper that reported this. If, however, the news report was accurate, merely dismissing it as “bogus” cannot end the controversy. The government and Mr Mukherjee must come clean on the facts.
That it was not just the finance minister’s room that was allegedly “bugged”, but also that of his advisor Omita Paul, brings into question the role of such non-professional advisors in the finance ministry. What exactly do they do? One understands the role of professional economists as advisors in the finance ministry. Indeed, the finance ministry has had an array of highly qualified advisors like Raja J Chelliah, Parthasarathi Shome, Ashok Desai and Shubhashish Gangopadhyay. But non-professional “political advisors” to the finance minister – like Jairam Ramesh in P Chidambaram’s office in 1996-98 and Mohan Guruswamy in Yashwant Sinha’s office in 1998-99 – have left a trail of controversy on their role. What exactly do they do? In the case of Ms Paul, newspaper reports suggest that senior officials of the government, of various agencies under the finance ministry and of financial institutions report to her on policy and related matters. In the interests of transparency, and to end all avoidable and ill-informed speculation, the role of such non-officials should be publicly clarified. Every minister is entitled to hire non-government professionals. Indeed, there is no reason the administrative, foreign and other central services should have a monopoly on senior positions in government. But, it is necessary and relevant that the role and powers of such advisors be clearly spelt out so that the public at large and those reporting to the finance minister are better informed.