Heads should have rolled over Rafale ‘leaks’

There have been several infamous budget leaks and resignations of finance ministers in disgrace to own responsibility. The most well-known case is that of UK’s Chancellor of Exchequer Hugh Dalton, who had to resign in 1947 after it was discovered that he had divulged details of his upcoming budget to a lobby journalist from the then popular newspaper The Star.

We have had our own version of it when Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari had to bow out of office when it became known that he had given access to the details of the budget he was preparing to people close to him and they made a killing in the market using such information.

The problem with budget leaks is that they give undue advantage to people privy to such information to make money. But the impact is mostly momentary; it seldom lasts long enough to wreck the country’s economy. And yet, budget leaks are considered shameful, and they often destroy the careers of those responsible.

If budget leaks are so disgraceful, what should one call the leaking of information relating to national security? And can the Modi government escape the blame for failure to safeguard such sensitive information? Shouldn’t someone’s head roll for such vital lapse?

The Modi government needs to answer all these questions. In its desperation to discredit lawyer Prashant Bhushan and activists Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, challenging the government’s course of action relating to the Rafale order, and by proxy Rahul Gandhi’s and Opposition’s campaign against Modi, the government has told the Supreme Court that all sensitive information that it was so desperate to keep away from the public domain has landed up in enemy hands, without realising the damage such claim can cause to its own credibility.

This raises the most fundamental issue as to how a government that can’t even guard such sensitive information from being stolen, or photocopied as an afterthought, secure the nation’s defence itself. One feels sorry for attorney general K K Venugopal, who despite his pre-eminence as a lawyer, is made to suffer embarrassment while trying to defend the government.

“This puts the national security in jeopardy. Without consent, permission or acquiescence of the Union government, those who have conspired in making the photocopy of these sensitive documents and annexing it to the review petition or miscellaneous application and thereby committing theft by unauthorized photocopying of such documents… have adversely affected the sovereignty, security and friendly relations with the foreign countries,” an affidavit filed by the Union government in the Supreme Court said.

The government further pointed out that the petitioners were using “un-authorizedly accessed documents with the intention to present a selective and incomplete picture of internal secret deliberations on a matter relating to National Security and Defence.”

Venugopal later clarified in the court that the Rafale documents were not ‘stolen’ from the Defence Ministry and that what he meant in his submission was that petitioners used “photocopies of the original” papers, deemed secret by the government. The clarification came in the face of Congress president Rahul Gandhi demanding a criminal investigation into the stealing of sensitive papers from the ministry.

In an apparent damage control move, the attorney general claimed there was no stealing, but only photocopying, but the clarification sounds least convincing as the net impact of whatever happened is the same. If the papers have landed up in enemy hands, it is a serious issue and it hardly matters what the modus operandi was.

National security has been compromised and the government owes an explanation to the people. The blame can’t be put on the petitioners, as it is the exploitation of a vulnerability in the ministry that made such ‘leak or whatever’ possible.

The AG faced further embarrassment when he was made to read out sections of the Right to Information Act by Justice K M Joseph, one of the judges on the three-man bench hearing the case, which dealt with RTI’s the overriding effect over the Official Secrets Act, the breach of which Venugopal had sought to raise. Justice Joseph reminded the government that the Right to Iinformation (RTI) has revolutionised information sharing and going back to the old order was not an option.

The secrets Act is a relic from the past and the use of such archaic law to stonewall the tremendous progress we have made in terms of transparency and good governance does not bring credit to the government, and least of all to a legal luminary like Venugopal, who enjoys an impeccable record, but for his current predicament by virtue of being a defender of the government and its below-par actions.

K Raveendran  is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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