Just the fear of intrusive surveillance can have disastrous consequences for India’s democratic functioning.
Even if it was a legitimate intelligence gathering operation, the Pegasus expose has effectively derailed it. By now potential targets would have taken appropriate preventive measures. So millions of dollars spent have been effectively flushed down the drain. However, the loss to the Indian Republic and the present government is much greater.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has described the government’s use of Pegasus spyware–designated as a “weapon” by Israel–against its citizens and democratic institutions as “treason”. With the State itself seemingly intent on destroying its own institutions, perhaps a better term to describe India today would be a “rogue democracy”–a term used by political scientists for democracies that attack the basic institutions meant to strengthen them.
If the alleged use of the spyware is even partly true–as it prima facie seems to be–then the State itself has acted in an extra-judicial manner. Such actions can disable the essential institutions of democracy which help maintain political equilibrium. The targets of cyber surveillance so far named, suggest that elected leaders have tried to impair the judiciary, sabotaged independent Constitutional bodies like the Election Commission, undermined the Opposition and eroded media freedom to consolidate power.
Just the fear of intrusive surveillance can have disastrous consequences for India’s democratic functioning. Those appointed to India’s constitutionally independent institutions and statutory bodies could become apprehensive of open communication within as well as with other institutions of the State, after revelations that Pegasus had infiltrated the mobile phones of a Supreme Court employee and a serving Election Commissioner, the Director and senior officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Communication between the ruling party and the Opposition will be irreparably affected too. After the names of Rahul Gandhi, Trinamul Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee, G Parmeshwara (former Deputy Chief Minister of Janata Dal-Secular in Karnataka), the personal secretaries of then Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy and Siddharamaiah and even the personal security guard of former prime minister H D Devegowda, were found on a potential surveillance list, henceforth all Opposition leaders would presume that they are under watch. Normal political interaction inside and outside parliament between the government and the Opposition political parties, already virtually non-existent in the Modi regime, will now be further diminished. Even on non-partisan issues the Modi government may find it increasingly difficult to solicit their cooperation. Every action of the government would be viewed with suspicion and in the service of protecting the current government leadership.
The biggest setback probably will be to the ruling BJP itself with party men doubting whether their leaders trust them. The list of those on the snooping list would emphasise this paranoia as it contains the names of Vasundhara Raje’s personal secretary; a once powerful aide of Union Cabinet Minister Smriti Irani; the wife, secretary, aides, cook and gardener of Prahlad Singh Patel who is himself a Union minister; former IAS officer and now Cabinet minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and even former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia.
Down the line the message will be understood that the party’s top leadership is wary of its own ministers and regional leaders, especially those critical of it. This could in effect reduce the party to a two-man band, with everyone else relegated to the status of suspicious, untrustworthy, marginal accompanists. With the party devouring its own, Hindutva ideologues would be deeply concerned by the damage the party’s current national leadership will have wreaked on the political instrument they had so carefully nurtured and fashioned.
The government’s total denial of any involvement in the affair is telling. To admit that it had purchased Pegasus spyware and used it against political rivals would lead to even more disturbing questions. The government would have to admit that it had used the spyware to bring down an Opposition-led government in Karnataka, to infiltrate the phones of Rahul Gandhi and other Opposition figures and even those of its own leaders and ministers. Could it really justify all this in the name of national security?
The Modi government’s assassination narrative around the Bhima-Koregaon accused and civil society activists already leaks like a sieve. More so after proof of the damning documents having been secretly implanted on the computers of the accused, has come to light. After such bungling there will be fewer takers each time the government cites national security or a ‘threat’ to a leader’s life to corner its opponents and critics.
If the government’s denial of involvement has any substance, it should have instantly taken judicial action against those accusing it of clandestine snooping. By now it should have ordered an inquiry to ascertain who undertook an operation costing millions of dollars. Calling the entire controversy “fake news” is unlikely to wash with anyone.
The overwhelming electoral mandate that the BJP received in 2014 and in 2019 should have made its leadership self-confident and accommodative. Instead, the accusations arising from Pegasus suggest that it has become increasingly paranoid. Executive power appears to have gone rogue in an attempt to stay in control.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s acceptability among other world leaders, already dwindling, will now plunge further as his high moral stance of leading the world’s largest democracy will be increasingly revealed as a fig-leaf. During this regime, there has been a slide in International references to the Indian polity as being “partially free democracy” (Freedom House, USA), an “electoral autocracy” (V-Dem Institute of Sweden) and a “flawed democracy” (Economic Intelligence Unit of The Economist).
Increasingly the world is not inclined to leave alone leaders who abuse the rights of their citizens. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s bluster about “disruptors and obstructers” will have little purchase as international opinion shifts towards bolstering alternative centres of power. The Modi government will then be left only with the thin defence of “outside interference in India’s sovereignty”. Used by autocracies like China, this argument cuts no ice. Already after its missteps in Jammu and Kashmir, US pressure has compelled the Indian government to take corrective measures.