In the days of the Emergency, any protest, dissent, or critique of the government was immediately labelled as proof of a CIA or KGB conspiracy. It was a reflex way to deflect the issue, and however incredulous it may have sounded, the powers that be at that time thought that it was a fitting riposte. Basically, it showed a bankruptcy of ideas, a decisively authoritarian bent of mind, a preference of bluster over argument, a disconnect with ground reality, and a siege mentality.
This is precisely what we are seeing in the response of the BJP and the government to the Pegasus saga. Consider the facts. Here is a snooping software made by an Israeli company, NSO. NSO sells only to vetted governments. A credible group of 16 media organisations, including the Washington Post, Le Monde and The Guardian, have, in collaboration with an NGO Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International (AI), claimed that Pegasus has been used to hack into smart phones in India. From a list of one thousand such targeted phones, 300 have been verified, 22 have been submitted for forensic testing, and ten have been found to have been infected. In other words, there is a serious allegation that a software from a foreign country has been used against Indian citizens to invade their privacy illegally.
In the face of this allegation, any responsible government would say that it is our duty to protect our citizens from such unauthorised surveillance by a foreign country, and we will investigate the matter thoroughly. Instead, the government has washed its hands of the entire matter, and rubbished the charges as an international conspiracy against India by “subverters and disruptors”.
This is a bizarre reaction, unless the government has something to hide. The facts seem to point to precisely that. Who would have an interest in snooping upon a leading figure of the Opposition, Rahul Gandhi, a poll strategist who after 2014 has consistently assisted parties fighting against the BJP, Prashant Kishor, and an ex election commissioner, Ashok Lavasa, who had the temerity when in office to write a note on the culpability of PM Modi and Amit Shah during the 2019 elections? Who would have an interest in tapping the phones of ex-Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, and other non-BJP lights of Karnataka politics, when Operation Lotus was being implemented by the BJP to topple the government in power? Who would have an interest in compromising the phones of leading journalists who have a verifiable record of being uncompromisingly critical of the BJP government?
The government’s defence that the whole thing is an international conspiracy against India, is equally bizarre. If the Israeli company NSO sells only to vetted governments, is the government trying to say that governments of other countries are conspiring against India? But, that brings us back again to the same question of mens rea — motivation. What motivation, for instance, would Rwanda or Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan or Morocco — countries who have bought Pegasus — have in attacking India? Would the government of Rwanda, for instance, be interested in snooping upon the lady who made the charge of sexual misbehavior against former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi? Would Azerbaijan be particularly interested in what Prashant Kishor is up to?
It begs credulity too that international media organizations like Le Monde or The Washington Post, along with over a dozen others, would hatch a conspiracy especially targeted against India, recruiting Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International for this sinister purpose. BJP spokespersons are making out Amnesty International as the key villain in this entire exercise. It is sobering to remember that AI was founded in 1961, has some seven million followers worldwide, and branches in the capitals of every major democracy. True, the government, in keeping with its general suspicion of all NGOs, had an unsavoury brush with AI, but to believe that AI has now hatched an international conspiracy to malign India is a completely untenable quantum leap in illogic.
There is another aspect to this matter. Pegasus operates by hacking into the mobile of the victim. Hacking is completely illegal. Surveillance of some kind of other is routinely resorted to by governments, and our governments — both past and present — are no exception. For such surveillance there are laid down, even if inadequate, procedures. But, there is no sanction for hacking. If such hacking has taken place, as preliminary but definitive proof certainly indicates, is it not the responsibility of the government to carry out a thorough probe of the entire matter?
The truth is that the government appears to be seized by a new sense of insecurity, not uncommon to failing authoritarian dispensations. The response to Pegasus — complete denial and a great deal of bluster about international conspiracies against India — is a symptom of this malaise. The nationwide income tax raids on respected media organisations, Dainik Bhaskar and Bharat Samachar, is another brazen example of this syndrome. Dainik Bhaskar had extensively reported only recently on the phone-tapping and surveillance of political opponents in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was chief minister. Earlier, it had spiritedly reported on the under reporting of official figures of deaths during the second wave of the Covid pandemic. Bharat Samachar had also reported on the public misery and mismanagement during the second wave. The punitive raids on them — notwithstanding the governments denials — is a clear example of the brazen misuse of state power. The government’s statement — in a written reply in Parliament — that there were no deaths due to lack of oxygen during the second wave is yet another symptom. And now, the inexplicable reaction to the Pegasus allegations is further proof that something, indeed, is seriously wrong.