That the Israeli spyware, Pegasus, was used for years to spy on hundreds of Indians ranging from politicians to bureaucrats and journalists to constitutional authorities has been established well by now. But what does it mean for Indian democracy, politics, business and society? I see five possible effects of the Pegasus crisis.
Elusive response from the government
The Indian government has been on a back-foot. This crisis heralds a significant challenge for the ruling BJP, coming after several other setbacks like the disastrous handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, a major fall in the economy, and the electoral defeat in Bengal.
It is interesting to see the chronology of reactions from the ruling party and its government. The first reaction was ignorance of Pegasus and the NSO of Israel. It then moved to ‘no unauthorised use’ of the Pegasus spyware (reportedly sold only to governments). It was followed by the claim of ‘authorised use’ in the national interest with standard operating processes. Then came the question: If other national governments are also using it, why question India alone? (Indians will naturally be bothered about their government first). Then came the acceptance that it was used but not for surveillance.
Attempts have been made to divert attention to well-known phone-tapping cases during the Congress rule, which, of course, were never a democratic practice. Right-wingers ask why the uproar now when Indians did not object to Google and Facebook capturing personal data. They ignore the fact that this is a government-funded project of a foreign tech company to use software to spy on personal interactions, chats, emails, track movements of selected people and see what their camera shows. This is far more serious than personal data used by a tech major to push advertisements, where the buying decision still lies with the consumer.
Opposition coming closer
The way the Shashi Tharoor-led multi-party Parliamentary Committee has taken this up for probing, come July 28, along with the entire opposition protesting vociferously in both houses of the Parliament, it is clear that the case is not going to vanish tamely. The issue can bring the disparate forces in the opposition closer and unite them better, contesting the government on its follies. From the second half of July until mid-August, this probe and the opposition noise within and beyond Parliament are expected to raise public awareness against this spyware scandal contributing to the political isolation of the ruling party even from its allies and some within their circles. Several leaders of the ruling party themselves and those of their allies have been spied on. The spied data, along with the lethal use of central forces like the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate, can be a major cause of concern for any political leader within and beyond the ruling party.
A case against electronic voting machines
The hacking of smartphones shows that the hacking of EVM is possible, and hence the demand for ballot paper-based elections should and will be more robust in the days to come. Most Western democracies such as Germany, United Kingdom, United States and Sweden have returned to ballot paper-based elections after a brief interlude with electronic voting machines. The repeated cases of faulty EVMs found around the country in the last half a decade, almost in all cases, have been seen voting for the lotus (symbol of BJP) no matter whichever symbol you press.
That the hacking of remote EVMs is technologically possible has also been demonstrated. A large contingent of faulty EVMs has been misplaced from Gujarat some years back. Today, the remote hacking of smartphones, along with encrypted WhatsApp messages, makes it clear that any electronic circuit can be remotely hacked, including EVMs. An all-out united opposition movement is expected to take this ahead forcefully.
Civil society resentment
Indian civil society, more particularly the socio-political and intellectual elite, is highly agitated. A section of the business elite is paranoid, seeing that nothing is private anymore in any human interaction. The BJP IT Cell has been aggressively digging and sharing stories of phone-tapping during the Congress rule. The other angle it is peddling now is that ‘colonial Western corporate powers’ like Facebook and Google are anyway getting all citizens’ data and that many agencies use Adhaar details. These are attempts to blunt the public anger against the Pegasus Project. However, well placed political and business elites understand the implications of all their chats, movements, meets, emails getting exposed to government snooping.
There cannot be any confidentiality of any business or privacy of any human interaction going ahead then. We see the surveillance State phenomenon in China, Russia, North Korea, becoming real even in India. India Against Surveillance movement against this on the lines of India Against Corruption movement by the civil society that unseated the UPA government is a probable case ahead. However, the government will use the Covid-19 protocols and restrictions to quell such an agitation. It is essential to see how the civil society reaction shapes up ahead.
Further surveillance attempts versus judiciary
There is also the dual possibility ahead: One, of surveillance, becoming a state policy in India, a la China and Russia, and second, a possible upsurge against it. There have been cases of spying in the past, the most infamous one being on Netaji Subhas Chandra’s family and much later during Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. However, the difference now is that the state is funding spying of constitutional, political and media stalwarts through technology by a foreign company, which is a significant threat to national security.
The propensity to resort to such spyware use against political or business adversaries will remain in future too. Worse is the fact that such hackers can infest the hacked smartphones with malware and anti-national content, leading to terror allegations against the owners of the smartphones. But that will depend on how opposition parties and the people protest this time and what that leads to. As has already been demanded by the Editors Guild of India, the matter shall go to court soon. Since legal luminaries were also spied on, it will be interesting to see how the courts will act.