Home minister P Chidambaram clarified in Parliament on Thursday that government agencies were fully authorised to tap the phones of suspected tax evaders. Chidambaram said the Central Board for Direct Taxes (CBDT) and other enforcement agencies were empowered to intercept phones to detect cases of tax evasion. However, he admitted that the present regime of phone-tapping needed more safeguards to prevent misuse.

While refuting opposition criticism that phone-taps were used to fix political adversaries, Chidambaram did not fully deny the charge that the phones of four political leaders were tapped.

“A probe is on. If any truth is found in media reports on the phone-tapping issue, action will be taken against the guilty,” he assured the Rajya Sabha. The government did not authorise the tapping, he maintained.

Responding to persistent demands from leader of the opposition Arun Jaitley, who had initiated the debate, Chidambaram said if there was a need to relook at the rules on tapping, the government would do so.

Jaitley pointed out that the CBDT seemed to be tapping phones for detecting tax evasion. The focus of the tapping was Niira Radia, a corporate PR consultant, who appears to have played a major role in lobbying on behalf of telecom companies to obtain licences and spectrum.

While many big business names have crept into the conversation, the focus of the Rajya Sabha debate was the right of the government to resort to tapping in tax cases.

The debate turned out to be a war of words between Chidambaram and Jaitley. The home minister said none of the conversations was tapped illegally.

Referring to the existing legal regime on phone-tapping, Jaitley said that section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, dealt with the interception of telephonic conversation and was a pre-constitution law. Under the law, public emergency or safety had to be under threat to invoke the tapping provisions. Phones could not be tapped otherwise.

Chidambaram rejected Jaitley’s contention that mere tax evasion did not amount to any national security issue or threat. The minister claimed that tax evasion directly threatened the country’s economy and is a threat to the nation.

The Chidambaram-Jaitley debate was, at one point, overshadowed by acrimonious exchanges between DMK and AIADMK members, traditional political rivals in Tamil Nadu, against the backdrop of the fact that telecom minister A Raja was often the focus of the tapped conversations. Raja has been in the thick of controversy in the auction of 2G spectrum.

Responding to the charge, Chidambaram said that the Act should not be rubbished merely on the grounds that it was archaic. “The Act also contains contemporary values, needs and norms,” he said. At the same time, he said that the government was prepared to change the Act as per existing needs and add more safeguards to it.

Jaitely, along with other opposition members, demanded the setting up of a joint parliamentary committee to probe the matter. However, it did not evoke any response from the government.

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September 2021