'Conspiracy, Revenge, Sensational': How the Modi Govt Evaded Accountability on Pegasus Row

Although it's been a year since the snooping row hit India, the BJP-led government has skirted its responsibility by initially denying allegations and later making unclear statements, none of which categorically say that it didn’t use the spyware.

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New Delhi: A year has passed since the Pegasus snooping row shocked the world. Mobile phones of human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and others across 10 countries were illegally put under surveillance through a military-grade spyware developed by the Israel-based NSO. Although NSO claims to have sold the spyware to only “vetted governments”, governments have mostly attempted to take only tokenistic measures or completely evade accountability.  

The Indian government, in this regard, has perhaps performed the worst among democratic countries. The Narendra Modi government either maintained silence over the issue or gave frantic statements against the opposition to deflect attention from the seriousness of the matter, leaving the Supreme Court to intervene urgently. 

Even as the findings of the 2021 global investigation of the Pegasus Project drew attention to the misuse of Pegasus spyware and opened up possibilities of similar illegal targeting of citizens in the future, the Modi government has tried every possible trick in its bag to sweep the controversy under the rug – forcing the opposition to raise the matter in parliament and outside for months. 

Also read: Pegasus: With SC Committee Set to Submit Report Soon, Here’s What We Know About the Work It’s Done 

After all, on the alleged surveillance radar were some of the top opposition politicians like the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, his close aides Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao; Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Mukherjee; celebrated election strategist Prashant Kishor; secretaries of former Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah; former Karnataka chief minister and Janata Dal (Secular) chief H.D Kumaraswamy; and former prime minister H.D.Devegowda.

Congress workers wearing face masks of PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, hold binoculars during their protest against the central government over an alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware, in Bengaluru, Thursday, July 22, 2021. Photo: PTI.

The “unidentified” agency using Pegasus did not even spare ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders as The Wire found the phone numbers associated with two union ministers – Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Patel – apart from aides of former BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Smriti Irani. 

For days, the opposition parties staged demonstrations across the country, held public meetings and briefed the press about the illegality of such surveillance on opposition leaders through spyware that was originally developed to keep terrorism in check.  

All these and more, however, didn’t prove to be enough for the Union government to give a convincing answer even though it skirted its responsibility by initially denying such allegations and later making unclear statements, none of which categorically said that it didn’t use Pegasus to snoop on Indian citizens.

Obstinate government

How the Modi government went about tackling the allegations of misuse of spyware may lend a more vivid picture. 

Immediately after the Indian chapter of the Pegasus row was broken by The Wire, the ruling BJP leaders immediately called it a conspiracy to defame India internationally, while the Union ministers tried to give the controversy a political spin to deflect attention from people’s misgivings about government’s involvement in what is probably India’s biggest surveillance operation. 

None other than the Union home minister Amit Shah first tried to brush off the Pegasus controversy as “selective leaks” by “disruptors for the obstructors”. He equated disruptors with “global organisations” and obstructors with Indian opposition parties which did not want India’s progress.

Although the Pegasus news reports were released almost simultaneously in July 2021, Shah curiously looked at it as an India-only phenomenon when he said that the “selective leaks” were timed to stop the progressive decisions that were supposed to be made in the monsoon session of the parliament. 

Also read: ‘Yes, India Bought Pegasus’: Israeli Reporter Who Helped Break NYT Story Speaks to The Wire

The Union IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, whose name also emerged in the list of potential targets hours after he made his statement in the parliament, termed the Pegasus stories as “highly sensational” laden with “over the top allegations” that lacked a “factual basis”. Almost in the same vein as Shah, he also thought that it was not coincidental that the Pegasus stories were timed to derail parliamentary proceedings in the monsoon session.

Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw speaking in parliament. Photo: PTI

Vaishnaw said that the government can intercept phones within the rules of the Indian Telegraph Act,1885 and Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 for the purpose of national security and situations of public emergency but curiously stopped short of even suggesting that it may have used Pegasus spyware.

Instead, he took refuge in the disclaimers published in the news reports that only if the concerned phone underwent a technical analysis, it was possible to confirm a person as a Pegasus target. Vaishnaw’s own phone number was on the list of possible targets, but he didn’t respond to any of the emails from The Wire requesting him to get his phone analysed for Pegasus threat. 

Similarly, the Modi government in its reply to The Washington Post – which also participated in the Pegasus Project – claimed that the news reports appear to be “a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign Indian democracy and its institutions”.

It said that government surveillance on specific people had no concrete basis or truth but also claimed that “there has been no unauthorised surveillance by government agencies”. Again, it left the most crucial question of whether it authorised the use of Pegasus or not unanswered.

Moreover, it misled the international daily by saying that RTI information in the public domain was enough to dismiss the “malicious” claims of any association between the Union government and Pegasus. No sooner did the Union government speak about the RTI, an RTI applicant Saurav Das put the government’s reply in the public domain.

Its response merely said the Cyber and Information Security Division of the Home Ministry had “no information” about the use of Pegasus, again pointing out that the government didn’t deny the use of Pegasus.

The BJP leaders and spokespersons merely echoed what the Union ministers said and attempted to portray the Pegasus Project as a global conspiracy to derail India’s progress. Former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad went on to offer a new political narrative that the Pegasus reports were “revenge” for India’s praiseworthy handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination programme. 

Although countries like France, Hungary, Morocco, and even Israel constituted inquiry committees to probe the matter, India made no effort on its own to at least look into the claims made in the news reports made after months of verification and cross-checking.

Nor did those in the government whose names were there in the list of possible targets show any interest in getting their phones analysed to confirm whether their numbers were compromised by Pegasus or not. This, despite nearly 50% of the phones that The Wire analysed with the help of Amnesty International Security Lab were found to have traces of Pegasus around the same time they got included in the NSP’s list of potential targets, confirming the authenticity of the NSO list.  

Throughout the last year, the Union government’s consistent refusal to divulge any information on the Pegasus row united the opposition forces, which from time to time have brought the matter to the fore. Parliamentary sessions almost came to a standstill because of the government’s reticence in even discussing the matter. Initially, it blatantly refused to discuss the matter, and later when the Supreme Court constituted a committee to probe the snooping row, the government fell back on the sub-judice nature of the row to deny any discussion in the Parliament. 

Most recently, in January 2022, amidst opposition demands to hold discussions on Pegasus in the budget session, the parliamentary affairs minister Prahlad Joshi said that there was no need for a separate discussion because the matter was sub-judice.

In fact, it was Joshi in July 2021 during the monsoon session who had denied the opposition’s demand for a discussion on the snooping controversy by claiming that it was “not a serious issue”. In 2021, the government moved swiftly to disallow any question by the opposition leaders in the parliament to discuss the Pegasus row on the ground that the matter was sub-judice.  

Determined opposition 

Despite the Union government’s obstinacy, the opposition has shown resolve in the last two sessions of the parliament to keep pressing the treasury benches over the controversy. At least 14 opposition parties have accused Vaishnaw of “misleading the House” in his statement on Pegasus. They stormed the House well to disrupt proceedings and from time to time gave requests and petitions to the Lok Sabha Speaker and the chair of the Rajya Sabha to allow a discussion on the issue. Outside, these parties protested against what they believed was illegal surveillance by the Modi government of people holding constitutional offices, opposition leaders, and critical citizens.   

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with his party MPs in a protest demonstration near Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament complex on the Pegasus row. Photo: Twitter@RahulGandhi

Even a year after the Pegasus stories showed how autonomous democratic institutions could have been possible targets of a military-grade spyware that has the power to hack into every personal detail of a person, the government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the gravity of the matter.

Such obduracy has only strengthened the allegations against the Modi government that it may have allowed the use of Pegasus against Indian citizens, and that discussion may lead to self-incrimination. The belief has only become forceful after the New York Times reported in January earlier this year that India purchased Pegasus in a 2017 contract that cost “millions” of US dollars – a spending that reflects in the sudden jump in defence expenditure of the Union government in 2018 budget estimates. 

Since the controversy erupted, the Modi government has also tried out every single trick to delay the proceedings of the Supreme Court’s probe in the matter. In the apex court’s hearings, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta has repeatedly refused to file a detailed affidavit on whether the Union government allowed the use of Pegasus on Indian citizens, citing that any information on the matter may compromise national security, and that making public such information will not be in the national interest.

Also read: Despite the Evidence, Courts Yet to Take Note of Spyware Used Against Elgar Parishad Accused

The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice N.V.Ramanna last September had taken a stern view on Mehta’s repeated delays in filing a detailed affidavit on the matter in front of the Court.

“You have repeatedly said that you don’t want to put anything in the affidavit. We also don’t want security issues to be put here. Presumably, a committee has been formed and then the report will be submitted here. Now, we have to look into the whole issue and decide something,” the bench said when Mehta failed to produce a detailed affidavit even after seeking more time from the court to do so.

In all hearings, Mehta has been repeating that any information on Pegasus will amount to a national risk, despite the fact that the Supreme Court bench had told him categorically that it did not want any information that may compromise national security. The bench had asked him to specifically address the question of whether the government allowed any illegal use of the spyware on citizens.

“The petitioners claim their rights were violated through illegal use of the spyware. We are only concerned to know whether the government has used any method other than admissible under the law,” the bench responded to Mehta last September. 

As many as 174 individuals, including those who held constitutional offices, journalists, activists, lawyers, judges, scientists, may have been potential targets of Pegasus.

In a matter of a few weeks, the expert committee that was set up eight months ago under the stewardship of the former Supreme Court judge R.V. Raveendran will finally submit its final report. There is only a limited understanding of how the committee went about probing the issue. In fact, there is no information available on the interactions it has had with government officials and agencies. Nothing much can be gleaned from the web portal that was originally meant to relay information on whether the probe committee is on track or not. 

With yet another parliament session underway, the opposition parties may again take up their demand to hold a transparent debate on whether the Union government allowed the illegal use of Pegasus on Indian citizens.

However, given the opacity with which the Pegasus row was dealt with by the Modi government, it is unlikely that the Centre is going to budge. More attempts to sweep the Pegasus under the carpet will only damage the already tarnished perception of India as a dynamic democratic state.