On Elected Authoritarianism & Pegasus
For a start, it may be assumed that the allegations pertaining to tapping of phone calls of Opposition leaders and journalists against the Government of India through Pegasus spyware are untrue. Still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Government have the duty to reveal the Truth, as the significance of the allegation is deep and far-reaching. Unfortunately, the Government of India is trying hard to suppress the issue. Ashwini Vaishnaw – the Minister of Railways, Communications and Electronics & Information Technology of India – has issued a statement, saying that the country’s law and order system is so strong that there is no possibility of illegal surveillance! Obviously, the statement has failed to address the core issue. Rather, the Minister’s claim has raised two serious questions: Was there any legal surveillance in India? If so, then how did it happen, for what purpose and on whom? Secondly, there lies quite a bit of difference between ‘No Possibility of Surveillance’ and ‘No Surveillance’. So, who can be held responsible as regards to a proper explanation of this? As expected, the Minister has blamed the Opposition leaders and the Media for tarnishing the image of Indian Democracy after the Pegasus Scam rocked the South Asian Nation.
The Elected Authoritarian Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, is trying hard to save its face with the help of an old weapon, Patriotism. The Government has rightly realised that the allegations are quite disturbing. It is not Patriotism in a true sense, but a trick to undermine anti-Government protests. When protests take place at an international level, it is often seen that an Authoritarian Government takes resort to Patriotism, in an attempt to overcome the crisis. Without giving a clear answer as to whether the Government has taken resort to implementation of the spyware Pegasus, a former minister has argued that more than 40 countries have been using the spyware. Such an argument, in a way, shows the Government of India’s eagerness to play the card of Patriotism or Nationalism. The eagerness is also reflected in the response of Home Minister Amit Shah, who has made an attempt to give an old lesson on Chronology, stating that parties in Opposition are trying to disturb the Parliament proceedings over a minor issue. In other words, those who are raising concerns about surveillance by the State and demanding an investigation into the matter are the ones who are creating chaos!
It is to be noted that ahead of the 2014 Parliamentary Elections, a 35-year-old lady from western Indian Province of Gujarat claimed that the Provincial Police Department had tapped her phone calls. The lady, an architect by profession, also claimed that the Police had tapped phone calls of her businessman father, as well. Later, the then Superintendent of Police (Operations) in Gujarat Police’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) Girish Singhal reportedly admitted that he and his forces had monitored each and every movement of the father-daughter duo after receiving an instruction from Shah (then Home Minister of Gujarat) in this regard. “In the latter half of 2009, when I was posted as SP at Ahmedabad, Shri Amit Shah had directed me several times to watch the movements of Pradeep Sharma, who was then posted as Municipal Commissioner, Bhavnagar. He had also asked me to survey a young woman named ****. I had deputed some men of the Crime Branch (as ATS was short of subordinate staff) to follow her, as directed by Shri Amit Shah,” stressed Singhal. (Source: https://thewire.in/books/undercover-book-excerpt-ashish-khetan-amit-shah-narendra-modi-snoopgate) Reports suggest that Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, had asked his Man Friday Shah to keep an eye on Sharma and his daughter.
During the Parliamentary Election campaign in 2014, Modi, the then Prime Ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had accused former Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh of abusing power. It is a fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had taped phone calls of Niira Radia, a former Corporate Lobbyist, during Dr Singh’s regime. Radia’s recorded telephone conversations implicated her influence in the allocation of key ministries in the Government of India in 2009. However, Dr Singh did not remain silent. Speaking at an event organised by the industrialists, he had reportedly said that there was a need to tap phone calls of some people in order to prevent income tax evasion or financial fraud, and also in the interest of National Security. At the same time, the former PM admitted that no one could abuse the system. Dr Singh had also ordered an investigation of the issue.
Now, Modi is the PM and Shah is his Home Minister. Unlike Dr Singh, the Modi-Shah duo is maintaining silence over the Pegasus issue. It is, perhaps, being done because of an old habit (of Modi and Shah to record others’ phone calls). The Supreme Court of India has already ruled that the Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Constitutional Right, and it is the Moral Responsibility of the Government to defend the same. It is also the moral responsibility of the Government to order a probe, if there is an allegation of illegal tapping of someone’s phone. The Government may also issue a statement, making it clear that someone’s phone has been recorded in the interest of National Security at the behest of the Government. The Modi Administration is yet to take any of these steps, as far as the Pegasus issue is concerned.
One of the finest examples of phone-tapping is the 1972-74 Watergate Scandal. It was a major political scandal in the US, involving the Administration of President Richard Nixon that had led to the President’s resignation. President Nixon had made an attempt to tap phone calls of leaders of the Opposition Democratic Party, ahead of the election. It is clear from the Watergate Scandal that if someone taps phones of her/his political opponents in a Democratic country, then the political career of the accused is tarnished. There is a difference between recording someone’s phone calls for the sake of investigation or for safeguarding National Interests, and recording phone calls of Opposition leaders during the election. The Global Media are criticising PM Modi because it has happened in a so-called Democratic Nation, like India. So, the moral responsibility to prove that Democracy is intact in the country lies with the Government.
If the Ruling Party is really worried about the dignity of the world’s Largest Democracy, then the Government should discuss the issue in Parliament. The PM, his Cabinet members and members of the Opposition parties will present their arguments, and (if necessary) an all-party inquiry committee should be formed to reveal the Truth. It is a Democratic process to resolve a serious issue. However, the Indian Prime Minister is maintaining silence both inside and outside the Parliament. His silence only deepens the suspicion that all the allegations against his Government over the Pegasus spyware issue are true!
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