Snoop and scoot no gain for democracy

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“Pegasus has got its wings on Fire, Keep away from him, Because When you play with fire, it harms you.” Inno

Literally, Pegasus has set India on fire. Ever since news of the spyware infiltrating millions of smart phones in over a dozen countries including India surfaced, the specter of surreptitious surveillance has sparked a vicious verbal war between the ruling establishments and their adversaries. Private information of presidents, prime ministers has been burgled in an underhand manner. Irony died when it was proved that the secret Israeli bugware was used by Arab monarchs to monitor their own people.

In India, Pegasus made headlines because the names of the surveilled included important BJP functionaries, among whom is a newly inducted Union Minister who was forced to defend Big Brother’s clandestine curiosity with a straight face in Parliament. As usual, the government went into denial mode as the Opposition bayed for blood and the cacophony’s contours acquired the shape of Liberty vs. Suppression. Comically, some individuals in the list were either insignificant or have little influence on decision making, leading to the moral justification for the dataveillance to be swept under the carpet. Perhaps, every one of them (barring genuine journalists) was at some stage, directly or indirectly, spying on each other. Self-importance is a curious index of relevance —some people whose names were missing slipped into dejection.

Information is power and surveillance sustains power. Power is also paranoia. Espionage is the historic weapon of rulers who had eyes and ears even in bedrooms of both friends and foes, since power has no loyalty. The hated Roman Frumentarii became so omnipresent and omniscient that Emperor Diocletian disbanded their secret web. Chanakya’s Arthasastra stresses the importance of espionage for the safety of the throne. From the Mughals to the British, snooping became warfare by other means.

Modern democracies, ever suspicious of internal and external threats to sovereignty and individual freedom, constantly keep a watch for conspiracies. Dictators use the tired trope of national security and stability to keep their chair. But modern electronic surveillance is spreading fear among free thinkers who are monitored as enemies of the state. Ever since democratically elected individuals gained unaccountable power, intensely intrusive tools are used to gather information about potential threats from within and outside.

After Independence, every elected leader at the Centre or in the state has used India’s massive state intelligence apparatus to his or her advantage. When technology was nascent, Chief Ministers and Police Chiefs gave secret instructions to the telephone department to install parallel lines of their targets. The postal department was advised to open letters of opposition leaders. In 1981, India Today magazine’s expose revealed the names of leaders including LK Advani whose mail was opened and read before being delivered by the Indira Gandhi government. After a furore in Parliament, the then Home Minister Giani Zail Singh ordered an inquiry. Numerous chief ministers such as Bhajan Lal in Haryana, Darbara Singh in Punjab, MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and Ramkrishna Hegde in Karnataka were accused of wire tapping individuals, including from their own party and government.

After the Britishers left their formidable spy machine in Indian political hands, illegitimate snooping became entrenched in the new system. Politics is the paradox of principles; its democratic mandate allows any government to use devious means to gather personal information about the very people who elected it. Domestic spying is an essential toolkit to win elections. It was rampant during the Emergency when Indira saw an enemy under every bush. When Rajiv Gandhi faced internal and popular dissent in 1987, his government tapped over 1 lakh phones. The Congress government commandeered the national telephone network 1980 to 1990. Zail Singh was so paranoid about phone tapping that he would meet journalists in the Mughal Gardens instead of in his office.

In 1996, Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda ordered his intelligence officials to monitor the phones and activities of Congress president Sitaram Kesri at whose mercy his government stood. His fears were proved true when Kesri pulled the rug from under him. The wily Congressman fooled the agencies by changing not only his landline numbers, but also by taking a circuitous route to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to withdraw his party’s support. Arjun Singh, a powerful minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet, accused the PMO of tapping his phones and ordered regular electronic sweeps of his entire residence.

With every change of regime, the techniques, technology and intensity of snooping acquire dangerous contours. After coalition governments became the norm in the states and the Centre from the 1990s, eavesdropping became an indispensable part of statecraft. India faced ultra-Leftist threats and Islamic terrorism in J&K. The government acquired sophisticated equipment to track anti-national elements and economic offenders like hawala operators. It also allowed the import of surveillance equipment by private agencies which were used by big corporates to tap phones of their rivals and babus.

The Pegasus furore reveals the sophisticated hi-tech power of modern tracking systems. Any cell phone can be checked 24X7, including iPhones which Apple claims are impenetrable. Since the only customers of Pegasus are governments, the real killer of privacy and intimidation of citizens has been bared. Undoubtedly, the enemies of the state should be on the watch list. But when used against the people who disagree with the policies of an institution or an individual, surveillance creates fear psychosis. If every citizen fears that his voice is being overheard by State, he would simply stop talking and the spies would get no information.

Moreover, the government is the loser when the exchange of free and fresh ideas stops. Now most ministers, civil servants and opinion makers refuse to talk on the phone or use Face Time, Signal or Telegram to communicate. The very objective of surveillance is to protect the larger interest of democracy. Dissent and democracy are inseparable. The tyranny and terror of technology unleashed through Pegasus cannot sever their sacred bond.

However, Pegasus has affected India’s democratic reputation. The kerfuffle has given a handle to many hostile and biased think tanks and NGOs to paint the country as a “partly free” democracy. Pegasus is the mythical creature of Greek legend, which is always portrayed as a white horse with wings. The only way to demolish the foundations of the “report by disruptors for the obstructers” is to release a White Paper on India’s newest Snoopgate.

Prabhu Chawla

prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com

Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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