OP-ED: Indian democracy and the Pegasus blues
India is increasingly becoming the laughing stock on the world stage
Some of us may still remember the melody “Let’s start at the very beginning. In the hit musical The Sound of Music (1965), the melody formed the opening for the song “Do Re Me”, which was used to teach the seven von Trapp siblings the basics of music.
The Pegasus spy scandal, which could undermine Indian democracy, also forces us to go back to basics and confront four fundamental truths.
A. No matter how little we have learned so far about the bizarre possibilities that Pegasus spyware contains, in all likelihood the Indian government has used it to spy on certain Indian nationals who appear to have the potential to shake up the government of India. Narendra Modi.
The more the latter dodges the question by resorting to vague and general answers, the more likely he is to be confronted with greater embarrassment when forced to discuss the question.
Of them. If Pegasus spyware is just cutting edge technology and nothing more, then it is unthinkable that a single private company located in Israel could own it. That similar companies, say American or Chinese, do not yet have it is inconceivable.
Three. How can you trust so completely a company’s claims that it only sells its products to government agencies? First, no company shares its trade secrets so openly; and in today’s world, where transnational capital scoffs at the very notion of state sovereignty, such a commitment can only be fictitious.
Four. Even if it is admitted that the state has the power to intrude on a citizen’s privacy, provided that such intrusion is duly approved by law, does this law also allow infiltration? by a foreign body when it comes to national security issues?
Today it is Congress President Rahul Gandhi, tomorrow it may be Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. After all, today’s Indo-Israeli bonhomie is not set in stone.
Like monsoon clouds
It is a basic IR that international relations change like monsoon clouds. The questions raised by the Pegasus spyware scandal therefore go well beyond India’s partisan politics. They can even engulf the current international order, which may in due course have to go through an international pact to contain this hydra-headed monster.
It is not for nothing that France and Israel have ordered high-level investigations into the matter. Spyware can wreak havoc in the international financial system.
State sponsored espionage is an old institution. We grew up hearing stories of how kings in ancient times disguised themselves as commoners and listened to their subjects in order to keep abreast of popular mood.
As we grew older, we came to terms with the sophistication of governing, which inevitably included espionage as a legitimate activity of the state. Our own pride, Kautilya, advised the king to spy on his finance minister lest he embezzle state funds. As a salaried civil servant manipulating public funds, the Minister of Finance had both the means and the potential motive to engage in embezzlement.
Why the fuss?
So if espionage is a routine state activity, why the fuss around Pegasus one might wonder innocently. As you might expect, this innocence leads to the usual weirdness. BJP government apologists indirectly argue that Indira Gandhi also spied on his political rivals; some even go so far as to point out that even his own young daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, was not spared. Rajiv Gandhi did he not spy on then Indian President Giani Zail Singh, they add.
But there is a problem here. Can’t logic be reversed? We still have not tolerated Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi for the wrongdoing they have committed. To do otherwise would be to say that since the witch hunt and the burning of the bride took place in the past, we should allow them today. Heads I win and heads you lose is not a respectable proposition.
In the current context, the old comparisons no longer make sense for two specific reasons. First, technology has changed dramatically over the past four decades. And second, there is a difference between choosing a potential political opponent and targeting an ordinary individual simply to collect kompromat (compromising material) for possible use in the future.
Why, after all, were the family members of the court employee who brought allegations of sexual abuse against a former Chief Justice of India on the Pegasus List? If the rumor currently circulating even partially holds up, the obvious conclusion is that spyware user Pegasus was trying to blackmail the Chief Justice into delivering Supreme Court verdicts favorable to the government.
The problem is, over the centuries, we’ve grown so used to condoning palace intrigues that we usually forgive the state, even if it restricts our freedoms and interferes with our lives. We regularly give the state the benefit of the doubt because of our ingrained commitment to national security. We seldom recognize that national security has increasingly been reduced to a euphemism for the expansion of power.
Violations of democratic rights
This leads to a dangerous tendency to accept encroachments on democratic rights as the “new normal”. The specter of “official secrets” is so exaggerated these days that even retired officers sweat over the publication of their memoirs, paranoid that they may have inadvertently compromised the national interest. We no longer trust their judgment; instead, the proposed rules are clearly intended to humiliate and silence them.
The facial recognition system could soon be introduced. If it is limited to the detection of crimes, that is fine. But the fear is that it could soon be used clandestinely to track who attended which political rally in order to selectively harass them.
Fortunately, the European Union and some states in the United States have decided to take it slow on the matter, which may prompt others to give in or at least re-evaluate these technologies.
The Pegasus controversy is just one of many symptoms of a much deeper unease plaguing contemporary India. Basking in the false glory of “mera desh mahaan” (my country is great) and the status of vishwaguru (world leader), India is increasingly becoming the laughing stock on the world stage.
The deeper discomfort
Here are some facts that point to deeper discomfort. A country of nearly 1.4 billion people is represented by just 543 Members of Parliament (MP). On average, each Member represents 2,578,269 Indians. To put these numbers into perspective, consider that the 650 members of the UK House of Commons represent only 66 million people. In other words, each British MP represents only 101,538 people; that is to say 25 times less than its Indian counterpart.
The other side of the story is even more scary. The President of PRS (Policy Research Studies) Legislative Research, Mr. R. Madhavan, has compiled some startling statistics. Four consecutive sessions of the Indian parliament have ended prematurely, including the canceled 2020 winter session. These sessions were also regularly disrupted. The Lok Sabha only worked 19% of its originally scheduled time and the Rajya Sabha only 26%.
Yet the government bulldozed 18 bills. Only one of these bills has afforded the luxury of more than 15 minutes of discussion. Almost all of the remaining bills were passed as soon as they were tabled.
During the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), 18% of bills were passed in the same session. This rate rose to 33% during the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19). We’re less than halfway through the 17th Lok Sabha (2019-24), but that rate has already reached a barely believable 70%. In this context, if we expect this government to allow an open discussion on Pegasus, we live in a paradise for fools.
An invitation to anarchy?
Let me conclude by recalling the now famous formula that the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy. We can imagine that this is an invitation to anarchy. But American playwright Edward Albee must have been a philosopher when he said that “an anarchist is the only person who takes democracy seriously”. His underlying belief must have been that the path to democracy must be noisy and chaotic. There is no easy way.
What should be noted, however, is that not everything is election. Conversely, an election is not everything. Just as a thermometer can only tell us the presence of fever and not its cause, an election can only tell us who will govern, not where the country is heading.
It is therefore important to educate voters on the larger issues at stake, such as the importance of freedom, secularism and, indeed, privacy.
Let us constantly alert ourselves to what Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once said: “This will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it gave its mortal enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly ICSSR National Fellow and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. E-mail: [email protected]