Long before Narendra Modi held sway, there were the omnipotent Nehru-Gandhis. In his book, ‘Open secrets, India intelligence unveiled’, former Intelligence Bureau joint director MK Dhar writes of how Indira Gandhi ordered the snooping on her daughter in law Maneka Gandhi. He also reveals how the Rajiv Gandhi government was spying on president Giani Zail Singh’s to the point where the president decided to conduct all personal meetings in the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s verdant Mughal Gardens and not in his office. So why then the fuss argue BJP supporters over unverified allegations that the Modi government was hacking mobile phones using Israeli spyware? Because not only is the ‘what-aboutery’ in this instance a lamentable alibi that rationalizes possible illegal acts but it fails to recognize crucial differences between snooping then and hacking now.
There is little doubt that the Indian state has always been a ‘snoop-state’: if the massive network of intelligence agencies were not used for political surveillance, how would many of their officers justify their very existence? In the mindset of most Indian prime ministers, with the odd exception, the enemy doesn’t just lie outside the borders but within their immediate neighborhood. The extreme paranoia that comes with great power means that supreme leaders are inherently mistrustful of those around them. This is as true of the Indira power playbook as it is that of Modi. But there is a qualitative and quantitative difference between snooping in the Indira years and the Modi era. This is an age when surveillance is more extensive, audacious and tech-savvy: net-net, the invasion into individual privacy is far greater than ever before.
In a previous time, the tracking was limited in scope: the ‘jasoos’ (detective) assigned to follow a target was a visible entity who could be held accountable when caught out. If a landline was bugged, a few conversations might be recorded but it wasn’t a 24×7 trail. But now, when the smartphone is an intimate and inseparable extension of mind and body, the dangers of hacking the phone suggest a near total compromise of a person’s life and work. And with a shadowy, military graded Pegasus-like technology infiltrating the phone in real time, where does one even begin the process of fixing accountability.
The ongoing investigation suggests that around 300 Indian ‘persons of interest’ might have been ‘potential’ targets. But who is to say that this was not a more scaled up operation where many more people were under the hacker’s gaze. Truth is, even one person’s phone being hacked unless there is a compelling national security threat involved constitutes a prima facie unlawful act. When the scale reaches the point that it allegedly covers political rivals, union ministers, journalists, judges, human rights activists, diplomats, businessmen, even scientists, then there is reason to believe that it isn’t just individual privacy rights that are being violated but that constitutional democracy itself is being disfigured.
And yet, the Modi government has chosen to brazen it out with barefaced denials and a refusal to even debate the issue in parliament or order a probe. Why? Primarily because a brute parliamentary majority has convinced the political leadership that their dominance can’t be challenged and any noise inside parliament isn’t going to have an echo effect outside it. The absence of greater civil society indignation suggests that a large section of the Indian citizenry ‘normalised’ hacking by almost disregarding its likely consequences. Never before has the ‘chalta hai’ attitude been more inappropriate since it reveals a disturbing willingness to acquiesce in governmental actions which, if proven true, reveal a criminal abuse of power.
It is this numbing of the collective conscience of a timid Indian middle class that the Modi government is counting on to tide over the Pegasus crisis. At one level, the passivity reflects the pre-occupations of a majority of the population: in an extraordinary period of Covid and economic hardship, a hacking controversy may not resonate for over-stressed minds. Somehow, the right to privacy doesn’t seem to register as strongly as other personal freedoms.
At another level, the response mirrors the hyper-polarised times in which public opinion is more sharply divided and partisan than ever before. With prime minister Modi being elevated into a cult-like figure by his vast army of supporters, any criticism of his leadership is instantly targeted as ‘anti-national’. The nationalistic fervor aroused by a relentless propaganda machine drowns out all contrarian voices. Not surprisingly, Team Modi have described the hacking allegations as a ‘foreign conspiracy’ by left wing organisations designed to derail government functioning on the eve of a monsoon session of parliament. Nothing could be more preposterously illogical: why would a French-based NGO co-ordinate a global expose into spyware hacking across 45 countries simply to coincide its revelations with India’s parliamentary cycle?
Truth is, the Modi government knows that a court monitored investigation could lead to further embarrassment by exposing the nature of state surveillance under its rule. Which might explain why the government has tied itself in knots in its parliamentary interventions while staying away from answering a central question: did it have any contractual dealings with the Israeli company on Pegasus? Any admission on this key issue would amount to virtually conceding that government agencies were guilty of unlawfully hacking phones in contravention of the provisions of the Information Technology Act. The IT minister has claimed in parliament that India’s official procedures do not allow for ‘unauthorised’ surveillance. This assertion is entirely disingenuous : can any country claim that clandestine surveillance is not part of its intelligence gathering set up?
Moreover, the very idea of being subject to any form of institutional scrutiny appears anathema to the Modi government whose Big Boss style of functioning has been marked by a resolute defiance of established procedures for political accountability. This is a government that refuses to accept that oxygen shortages led to Covid deaths, insists there was no migrant crisis last year, maintains the economy is on track and jobs are being created, rejects proof of Chinese border intrusions. Why then should it now choose to debate the hacking charges in parliament, or indeed, agree to any judicial oversight? Pegasus was, after all, a mythical winged horse. Perhaps, in the imagination of the government and its cheerleaders, snooping and hacking too are mythical concepts.
Post-script: Long before Delhi 2021, there was Gandhinagar 2008-09. Then, as revealed in my book 2019: How Modi Won India, top Gujarat IPS officers were called in by the state home minister for a top secret demo of an upgraded Israeli machine that could eavesdrop on all mobile conversations. We don’t know for certain whether the spyware being shown was Pegasus and whether it was finally procured, but the then home minister of Gujarat, Amit Shah, is now the country’s home minister.