Pegasus spyware row and Indian democracy
The Pegasus spyware controversy has set off a political storm in India. Sustained anti-government protests by the opposition on the floor of the House paralysed almost the entire first week of the monsoon session of Parliament from July 19. Trinamool Congress member of the Rajya Sabha Shantanu Sen was suspended for the rest of the month-long session for snatching papers from the hands of India's IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who wanted to articulate the government's stand on the row, and flinging them in the air.
A network of global media organisations, along with a consortium of global civil society organisations, came together to bring out a list of potential targets of Pegasus spyware—including Indian opposition politicians Rahul Gandhi, at least two serving federal ministers, a former Election Commissioner, journalists, business tycoons, and a Supreme Court judge—for surveillance worldwide last week. By most accounts, the list is only of potential targets as only a few devices have been subjected to forensic test and analysis, of which just some of them were found to be infected or hacked. No information is available about the source of the leaked list.
Indian IT Minister Vaishnaw, in a statement in Parliament on July 22, said that "In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. Those reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court." On press reports on the Pegasus issue on July 18, he said these "also appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well established institutions".
Countering the allegation that individuals linked to the Pegasus spyware row were being spied on, Vaishnaw pointed to four aspects contained in the press reports themselves: (1) the presence of a phone number in the leaked data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack, (2) without subjecting a phone to technical analysis, it is not possible to conclusively state whether it witnessed an attack attempt or was successfully compromised, (3) the report itself clarifies that presence of a number on the list does not amount to spying, and (4) Pegasus services are openly available to anyone, anywhere and anytime and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide.
Questions have been raised if Pegasus has been procured by the government and deployed against Indian citizens. If not, then who procured and used the spyware? Only a fair probe can bring out the facts. Views are divided as to how the whole Pegasus episode will be probed. Should it be a Supreme Court-monitored investigation (a public interest litigation is already at the top court)? Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram pitched for a joint parliamentary committee probe but his party colleague Shashi Tharoor said there was no need for that and the parliamentary committee attached to the IT ministry is enough to do the work.
Across the world, intelligence-gathering has over the centuries been a key component of statecraft under all political systems of government, ranging from dictators to the most open democratic societies. There is no disputing the fact that governments in all countries use intelligence organisations for foreign policy and national security objectives.
Since the late 1980s, India has witnessed spying incidents from time to time that led to the resignation of Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde and Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. Hegde quit on "moral grounds" in 1988 after information came out of wire-taps on 50 individuals, including journalists and dissidents, within his ruling Janata Party. Subsequently, the fact that permission was given to the police for the phone-tapping was made public too, which made Hegde's continuance untenable.
In 1991, the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar's Samajwadi Janata Party government, backed by the Congress, had to go after Congress withdrew support when it emerged that two policemen in plainclothes were apprehended for allegedly keeping vigil outside Rajiv Gandhi's house. In 2011, when the Congress under the then PM Manmohan Singh was in power, a confidential letter written by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Manmohan, that he suspected a bugging device was planted in his office, was leaked. Two years down the line, audio tapes—recorded allegedly at the behest of Amit Shah (now India's Home Minister) of Gujarat—of purported conversations of a female architect, were leaked.
Then, there was the leak of the BlackBerry Messenger messages recovered by income tax officials from the laptop of meat exporter Moin Qureshi. The spying controversy also hit the business sector when conversations of industrialists Ratan Tata, Nusli Wadia and Keshub Mahindra came out. The then Prime Minister I K Gujral had ordered a CBI probe into the audio tape leaks but the inquiry was closed "for want of evidence", leaving the question of who or which agency ordered the telephone taps on the industrialists unanswered.
That is not all. In 2008, conversations of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia were leaked in what became infamous as the Radia tapes. The conversations pertained to allocation of 2G telecom spectrum for mobile phone services companies. There was, however, a major difference about the Radia tapes case—the tapping was authorised in connection with the 2G allocation scam that also hit several big names in Indian journalism who were in conversation over phone with the lobbyist.
The Pegasus issue has once again brought to the fore the demand for bringing intelligence agencies under legislative or judicial oversight, something no political executive, irrespective of affiliation, has done so far. At present, that job is done by the bureaucracy at the central and state levels under clearly-defined rules and three to four categories of persons whose phones can be tapped after due authorisation. According to former senior bureaucrats in the Home Ministry, those rules and categories allow phone-tapping only against persons charged with terrorism and major economic offences, and certainly do not include anyone else.
It is impractical and futile to expect complete transparency in the covert operations of the intelligence agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) or the Intelligence Bureau, particularly when it comes to national security because secrecy is the essence of their activities. But the suggestion that their oversight may be expanded from the bureaucracy to include a small legislative committee merits consideration. Such oversight mechanisms are in place in the US, Australia and Canada.
What makes the current Pegasus row stand out from earlier phone-tapping rows is the much bigger number of potential targets. Two unmistakable developments are to be noted in this context: the coming together of media houses and civil society and rights groups, and efforts, in which the opposition has joined in full strength, to show that media freedom and democracy have taken a big hit in India under the Narendra Modi dispensation and that an ambience of fear is all around. The Modi government has come out with its own counter-mobilisation.
But the Pegasus row has implications beyond the political slugfest. It raises important issues of citizens' privacy and liberty that need to be debated. The Indian constitution already subjects individuals rights and liberties to reasonable restrictions when it comes to external and internal emergencies. Then why are journalists, politicians and other citizens also being spied upon?
India should not get distracted by the noise emanating from Western countries about the country's "flawed" democracy. Many of these countries were once imperialist powers and some of them had, during the Cold War decades, collaborated with the most brutal regimes across the world that annihilated their own citizens and sought to crush national liberation movements. However, for its own sake, India needs to get to the bottom of the issues raised by the Pegasus episode in the country.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.