The Pegasus leak is not the first time that we have learned that Indian dissidents, journalists and opposition politicians are being spied on. It is not the first time that phones have been tapped in India, and it is certainly not the first time that the finger of suspicion has pointed to agencies of the union government. Nevertheless, it counts as a new and disturbing development.
Paranoid elected autocrats from Mrs Gandhi onwards have misused the intelligence services to spy on their opponents. A famous report from the Central Intelligence Bureau in 1991 revealed that Rajiv Gandhi’s government had been tapping the phones of not just some of his own ministers, like Arif Mohammed Khan and K C Pant, but a long list of opposition leaders. A R Antulay, who as Chief Minister of Maharashtra likely ordered opposition leaders’ phones to be tapped, was in turn being spied on by the union government. M G Ramachandran was apparently tapping the phones not just of M Karunanidhi and M K Stalin, but even of his protégé, J Jayalalithaa. Multiple agencies of the union government are empowered to tap phones – and, under the United Progressive Alliance government, we know that some of those conversations were selectively leaked to the media in order to tarnish the reputations of those being recorded. And there were even allegations that senior cabinet members in UPA-II were tapping each others’ phones, which is quite in keeping with the overall ethos of that confused period in our history.
Why, then, is this worse? For at least three reasons.
First, because there is a substantive difference between “phone tapping” and the complete hijacking of smartphones that can be achieved by spyware like Pegasus. Partly this is because smartphones at this moment in time are much more integral to people’s lives – and their professions – than telephones you just used to talk on. Back in the day, people used to be careful about what they said on telephones, especially landlines. For a while, till the Radia tapes, people thought that basic mobile phones were more reliable. But now, at the most, you think that switching from WhatsApp to Signal means that you are safe. (You aren’t, not completely.) As unaccountable invasions of privacy go, spyware on a smartphone is far more intrusive and indefensible than old-style phone-tapping used to be.
Second, because of what can be done with spyware and malware – not just the reputational damage that can be caused by selective leaking, but the laying of a false trail of criminality and conspiracy. Selective leaking or the threat thereof can be used for blackmail, controlling and intimidating independent authorities including bureaucrats and judges. Framing people for crimes is even worse. Independent analysts based in the West, according to The Washington Post and others, have determined that such false and planted evidence has been used to detain activists under draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Bhima Koregaon case. (It has been revealed that similarly-planted evidence has been used to lock up journalists in another major Pegasus client, Morocco.) If Pegasus had not exploded into public view, we can have no doubt that more such accusations would have been made in order to lock up dissenters. Even now, it is likely that whichever agency bought the Pegasus spyware, and whoever it answers to, is not completely deterred. Such false accusations may well continue to be made, and some fools will believe them.
And that is, I feel, the third way that this occasion is worse than what came before. When Chandra Shekhar, in a 1990 interview with the Illustrated Weekly of India, accused his Janata Dal rival V P Singh of tapping his phone, it was a scandal. When Ramakrishna Hegde of Karnataka was accused of a similar crime in the 1980s, he had to resign. Public response to such an abuse of authority was sharp and negative.
Is there a less negative reaction this time around because there is justifiable doubt about who bought Pegasus and populated this list of target phone numbers? No. After all, everyone knows that Pegasus is sold only to agencies of “sovereign governments”. It is also known that Indian numbers began to be enrolled for the Israeli spyware in earnest the day before the Indian and Israeli Prime Minister strolled together on a Tel Aviv beach. And everyone can look at the list of numbers and come to their own conclusion about who has bought the spyware. Who knows, someone might be willing to believe that the Government of Bhutan is spying on Rahul Gandhi, Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and Prashant Kishor. Or perhaps the Government of the Maldives is interested in the phone of Prashant Kishor and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew. Or the Government of Chile is listening in on Dalit activists and the VHP’s Pravin Togadia. The Government of India, surely, has no interest in this set of individuals. It must be someone else.
I think the difference today is that, earlier, the abuse of power and the perversion of intelligence capabilities was at least recognised as abuse. Judging by the reaction to the Pegasus leaks, the public mood has changed considerably over the past decades. Spying on opponents is now deemed acceptable, or at least unsurprising. Partly that is because the dominant political narrative in this country – as it is in other populist regimes across the world – is one in which all dissent is inherently traitorous and “anti-national”. The union Home Minister argued on Twitter that accusations of snooping are “conspiracies” meant to “derail India’s development trajectory”. This is, like it or not, the dominant form of political rhetoric in the country today; under such circumstances, unaccountable spying is redefined. It is no longer abuse of power, but the righteous, patriotic and legitimate use of power. In any case, for politicians whose core appeal is that they are strong enough to do anything to win, and determined enough to always win, accusations such as these only bolster their image.
And this is why the union government’s response to these accusations has been so farcical – there is no need to have a convincing denial. It is necessary instead to invoke conspiracy and paranoia. Just as every hurdle in Mrs Gandhi’s path to dictatorship had been placed there by a “foreign hand”, today every accusation can be redefined as a plot against the nation by foreign provocateurs in league with domestic dissidents. (Again, India is not an exception in this – Viktor Orban’s Hungary quickly blamed the billionaire George Soros, an accusation swiftly copied by the Indian establishment’s pet “fact-checking” web sites.)
This is why, for example, that the former IT minister can claim with a straight face that this may be “revenge for the way that India has handled Covid”. (The minister meant that it was revenge for India having handled Covid well, not revenge for India having bungled the second wave. Layers upon layers of inaccuracy.)
This is also why the current IT Minister merely reiterated in parliament that there had been no “unauthorised” snooping. I urge everyone to read the minister’s statement carefully: it is a denunciation of “sensationalism”, a reminder that the story did not prove that every phone in the Pegasus list had been successfully tapped, and a reiteration that India has “robust institutions” and “time-tested processes.” For some reason the minister – whose phone number was, apparently, also in the Pegasus database – stopped short of outright denial.
There were enough journalists, politicians and activists in this list who are loyal foot-solders of the establishment for us to recognise what unaccountable power actually does. It is never just used against enemies of the nation. It is used against enemies of the establishment, and then against pillars of the establishment itself to keep them in line. The abuse of power only multiplies. A few thousand phones may have been targeted in India, a few hundred eventually hacked. It will not stay that way. It will wind up being tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of phones, and an entire army of unsupervised and unaccountable snoopers armed with the latest global technology. That’s our future, unless we take a stand against this abuse now. Or perhaps we should just accept this trajectory for India’s development. After all, these may be the only jobs the government has created in the past seven years.