Backstory: Amidst Pegasus Storm Comes a Reminder That Parliament, Media Are Parallel Sites of Deliberation

A weekly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The monsoon session of Parliament 2021 has been rained out. To deflect the blame that logically falls on the ruling party which is entrusted with the responsibility of running Parliament, the Modi government with customary speed in perception management corralled eight ministers to point an accusatory finger at the Opposition. Soon their message was being amplified across the mainstream media space, with anchors hollering interminably about how Indian democracy was being destroyed because of the aggression of oppositional leaders.

If we were to closely consider what transpired during the 26 days (July 19 to August 13) that constituted this Session, what becomes clear is that the threat facing Indian democracy actually emerges from the ruling party, with its deliberate prevarication, conscious deflection and complete disregard for the norms and purposes of Parliament.

The Pegasus scandal holds dire implications for the survival of democracy in this country and demanded engagement from the ruling party.  Instead it determinedly disengaged from the issue in the weeks that followed. In the immediate aftermath of the news, the scandal was framed as an international conspiracy to malign India’s democracy. This was followed by a “statement” from the newly-inducted Union Minister of IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, which ended up saying nothing apart from leaning heavily on the NSO’s words in self-defence to bail out his government (‘Centre Rejects Demand for Probe Into Snooping Allegations, IT Minister Calls Reports ‘Over the Top’‘, July 22). His broad point that the “presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack” only underlined the need for further investigation – exactly what the Opposition was demanding.

A concerted effort to dismiss the scam as an issue of no consequence was the next strategy of the ruling party. On July 30, we had Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi maintain in Parliament that “this is not a serious issue”. Ten days later, the Union defence ministry stated that it didn’t have any transaction with the NSO Group – which is actually all that the Central government had to say if indeed that was the case. Yet it chose not to say it (‘Pegasus: Defence Ministry Says in RS It ‘Hasn’t Had Any Transaction With NSO Group‘, August 9).

On August 11, Venkaiah Naidu, presiding over the Rajya Sabha, acknowledged that he had received notices under Rule 267 from four MPs to discuss the spyware, but added that he was not allowing it because the “matter has already been taken up”.

It was the case involving CPI Rajya Sabha MP, Binoy Viswam, which was the most intriguing. His question on Pegasus was provisionally admitted, or so he was informed by the Rajya Sabha secretariat, and it was to be answered on August 12. But what followed was a runaround with the government ultimately disallowing it on the basis that the issue was under the consideration of the Supreme Court and it was “sub judice”. As The Wire piece, ‘Disallowing an MP’s Question in Rajya Sabha Will Devalue Parliament’ (August 10) points out, the text of Viswam’s question does not intervene into matters presently before the court’s consideration and therefore the justification made to block the question does not stand.

Each of these attempts to side-track, cover-up, parry Pegasus questions required the full alertness and attention of the media but in those 26 days the mainstream media in general had their eye steadily off the ball. A subject that should have concerned all journalists in India directly – after all at least 40 mediapersons “were either targets or potential targets for surveillance” (‘Pegasus Project: 161 Names Revealed By The Wire On Snoop List So Far’, August 12) – just did not get the media traction it demanded. Sure, a lot of passion was expended in berating leaders for letting down parliamentary democracy, but it was invariably targeted against the Opposition.

The fear the media has of being turned into dross if they but critique the government on Pegasus came across in an interesting quote from the CEO of the Outlook Group, Indranil Roy. Newslaundry asked him why the issue of Pegasus did not make it as a cover story. To this he coolly replied, “We had this discussion and found that there was not nothing new in the report.” Nothing new about the fact that over 160 people, many of whom held extremely sensitive posts, came under the active spying of the government? Is this not worth some further investigation? How did a premier media house develop such ostrich-like qualities? The one time it had stuck its neck out saw its editor-in-chief Reuben Banerjee’s own neck on the line. He has now proceeded on a one-month holiday break, whether he liked it or not, for coming out with a startlingly effective cover in late May after Covid-ravaged bodies floated down the Ganga, that carried a blank space with the legend “Missing”, followed by “Name: Government of India Age: 7 years, Inform: Citizens of India” (‘Is Outlook editor Ruben Banerjee being pushed out for a cover criticising the government?’, Newslaundry, August 3).

If the media have been belted and bound into submission to the powers that rule us, the Monsoon Session indicated the many ways in which Parliament and parliamentary norms have been twisted and turned for the same purpose.

The undermining of Parliament began almost from the moment the prime minister kissed its sacred steps on May 14 after winning the 2014 general election. The prime minister’s imagination now embraces an even larger parliament building than the present one, but these seven years have seen the opposite phenomenon. If one were to adapt a popular Hollywood title, ‘Honey, They Sure Have Shrunk Parliament’.

Parliamentary committees meant to deepen the deliberative process have been mothballed. Sightings of the prime minister in the august House have become increasingly rare. Posts that would have given the Opposition some visibility, like that of Deputy Speaker, lie vacant. The arbitrary truncation of proceedings carries on – the Monsoon Session was prematurely shut down sine die and there has been excision of the entire Winter Session of 2020.

What has also become increasingly clear is the curtain of opacity being drawn.  Media access to parliament is severely whittled down (‘Media Orgs Protest Denial of Normal Entry To Accredited Journalists for Parliament Coverage’, July 14) and there is evidence of the censoring of content put out in the official broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings. The Monsoon Session in fact saw very clear proof of this with the camera in the House looking the other way during the protests of Opposition MPs.

Why should this disturb us, whether as journalists or as ordinary Indians? Because in many ways the Legislature (the First Pillar of Democracy) and the Media (somewhat fancifully termed the Fourth Pillar of Democracy – although prime time television debates indicate how hugely corroded it has become) are both complementary circles of national conversation. They are both meant to represent the people of India. They are both bodies that critique the Executive and hold in check the overweening arrogance of those in power.

On the 75th anniversary of Independence, we need to remember stalwarts like M.N. Roy who wrote in his Constitution of Free India: A Draft (1944), “The supreme sovereignty belongs to the entire people, and shall be exercised directly through the control of the executive as well as the legislative functions of the State, by elected representatives of the people.” Perhaps we should read these words along with an important disclaimer from Dr B.R. Ambedkar, “Independence is no doubt a matter of joy. But let us not forget that this independence has thrown on us great responsibilities. By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves.”

The Monsoon Session is an indicator of just how wrong things have gone.


Readers write in… 

Dil mange more

Kartikeya Mehta from Rajkot has this to say: As India recorded its best ever medal tally at the 2021 Olympics held at Tokyo, I congratulate all medal winners, or rather every participant of Indian contingent. Many would have crossed numerous physical and social hurdles to reach the highest arena of world sports. Again this time we had several stories of perseverance and personal endurance.

“But for a country of 1.3 billion people, the tally of seven medals at Olympics is a blunt realisation that we as a nation still believe in that old adage “kheloge kudoge toh banoge kharab, padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab” (if you play or jump, you will end up a damp squib/If you read and write you will become a nawab).

“USA with a population of 31 crore (for a simple comparison, Uttar Pradesh’s population is 21 crore) took home 113 medals.  Australia, a country whose population is at parity with one Indian city – Mumbai — took home 46 medals. Much smaller countries than ours are doing well on the sports field because of the support they get. In India, only cricket gets that same kind of support and perhaps it is time for the BCCI to encourage other sports and make other sporting bodies stronger.

“Until this happens, a country of 1.3 billion people will cling on to cricket, blatantly ignoring other forms of sport. Until when do “we the people of India” justify our poor showing at the Olympics by highlighting a few individual glories? The stories of individuals overcoming personal challenges actually highlight the shortcomings of the Sports Authority of India.

“A renaissance is required. The Government of India should make a commitment to its citizens on August 28 (The National Sports Day) that it will provide the much needed push to the cause of enhancing sports and athletics in India. Will the president of Indian Olympic Association or the sports minister (whoever it is in 2024) take the onus and resign if the medal tally doesn’t reach at least double digits in Paris 2024?

“Sending a large contingent to Paris won’t increase our medal prospects, but sending a battle ready contingent will. India has untapped potential which, if utilised judiciously, can fetch us gold medals equalling India’s present seven-medal tally. Yeh dil maange more!”

A country committed to trivial pursuits

Ramana Murthy comes up with another perspective on the same topic: “As a nation we seem to have lost direction, if not sense. The adoration showered on sportspersons and the importance given to sport – a trivial pursuit of life – in these grave times is regrettable.

“Even in normal times, a developing country like ours giving so much importance to sport is a sign of people’s childish interests and also our callousness to the problems of inequality which is so widespread. In a country where millions lack the basic necessities of life, spending billions of money and countless manhours of time on a few millions’ entertainment is reprehensible. And in these pandemic times, when crores are been pushed into poverty, it is a crime against humanity.

“The adoration being showered on P.V. Sindhu for her Olympic medal (a mere bronze at that) is disgusting to say the least. When reports say that nearly 4 million (only 4 lakh according to the government) people have died due to Covid, should we celebrate a sports achievement so much? Does this not amount to mocking the hapless people who have lost their loved ones and who frantically ran around for oxygen cylinders to save their relatives and friends and who could not meet the cost of treatment? Should we even be playing in these times? The latter question may be debatable but I strongly feel the former one is not.

“This crude worship of trivial pursuits starts right from the top. Just as in the case of the Kumbh Mela and the Kanwar Yatra during a pandemic, we threw all caution to the winds. Populist leaders who draw their support directly from the people, as against from institutions and fair governance, are ever insecure of losing their base. Hence their anxiety not to lose a single opportunity to reinforce their popularity by associating with celebrities and their deeds. This seems to be a parasitic relationship where both kinds of celebrities benefit from each other’s popularity.

“What the Centre does, the states are quick to emulate. While the prime minister celebrates the celebrities at the national level, ostensibly for the cause of patriotism, state chief ministers duly own up their heroes to work up regional sentiment, calling them sons/daughters of the soil and showering them with over-lavish bounties at the cost of the taxpayers’ money. The former CM of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, made P. V. Sindhu a deputy collector for her previous feat, in addition to showering lavish gifts on her. A position so hard-earned by meritorious men and women after so much hard work is misused by politicians to garner some cheap popularity. Banks have a tradition of appointing sportspersons to promote their business but what duties were Sindhu supposed to discharge with this designation?

“The media is not helping either. All the top four Telugu news channels (ETV, ABN, TV9, NTV) never questioned KCR’s and Naidu’s decisions for reasons best known to them and the Telugu public. At the national level too, English news channels vie with each other in glorifying such feats so as not to lose their TRPs vis-à-vis other channels.

“So where is sport and camaraderie in all this? Millions can die, bodies can float in rivers, children can become orphans, hundreds of thousands can become impoverished, but sports and films carry on regardless.”

Start Up or start down?

Dr Susmita Ghosh calls herself a ‘technopreneur’ who had the opportunity to see the start-up culture from a very close distance: “It pains me that despite the innovative Indians, we don’t seem to reach the market or serve the people. The COVID-19 scenario exposed a lot of hollowness. The more country shouted “Atmanirbharta”, the more did it become dependent on imported, especially Chinese, products. An investigative story from your end may improve the situation. I will be happy to add to it!”


Abhishek Sur has a bit of trivia for us: “I vaguely recollect reading that every covert operation has a codename relevant to the goals thereof. If true, what is the relevance of the name ‘Pegasus’? To the best of my memory, The Wire has not provided an explanation of this.”

Foresight or hindsight?

In my last column, ‘Backstory: Like a scalpel, the Pegasus investigation has exposed the cancer within the body politic’ (July 31), I had sentences that read: “The Pegasus story is far from over and as it unravels, it keeps providing us with glimpses of the depths we are plumbing as a country and society. Not having the gift of hindsight it would be difficult to gauge where it will take us, but suffice it to say that like a scalpel, it has cut through the opacity of our political system and revealed a malignant cancer within.”

Well, one reader who prefers to use the pseudonym of jimg2224, wrote a cryptic response: “Foresight, not hindsight”. It set me considering as to which was the more appropriate expression. Foresight is the ability to see what could possibly happen in the future, hindsight is an understanding gained of a situation only after it has happened. In this case, I used “hindsight”, because it is about understanding the future implications of a reality that is already playing out. But thank you jimg 2224 for provoking me to review what I wrote.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in