Between Drone and Pegasus, the Latter's Flight May Be the More Fatal to India

It is strange that the Modi government, which denies targeting the individuals named, does not feel impelled to find out who it is that may be attacking democratic opinion critical of the establishment.

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An international consortium of media organisations says it has unearthed a sweeping digital database of numbers that some 10 governments around the world had selected as persons of interest. Among the probable victims of spyware are politicians (including, in India, some from the ruling party itself), journalists, opinion-makers and others from some 40 countries.

The Wire, which held up the Indian side of the Pegasus Project, says the list of probable targets within the country includes around 300 persons.

Forensic tests on some of the phones suspected of being targeted found traces of an intrusive spyware  called Pegasus on 10 Indian handsets.

Israel’s NSO Group, which makes Pegasus, maintains that it sells its spyware only to vetted governments.

The government of India refuses to say whether it has bought Pegasus from NSO, even as it insists it has nothing to do with any “illegal” operation.

Despite the claim made by The Wire that 10 phones have been provenly targeted by Pegasus, the Narendra Modi government does not think this a fit case for enquiry. It does not seem to want to know whodunit.

Curiously, they remain untroubled by the possibility that some external agency may have initiated the attack, notwithstanding the concern that such an attack clearly constitutes an assault on Indian democracy and national security.

Imagine how agitated American governments have been in recent years by alleged foreign cyber interference in their electoral processes.

The befuddling complacency of the Modi government seems at great odds with the frequent campaigns mounted by it against even perfectly legitimate foreign-funded NGOs for, allegedly, undermining Indian sovereignty.

Against this backdrop, one may be forgiven for regarding the Indian government’s stand as patently fishy.

The government’s ease-of-mind in the matter compels the inference that the truth is not being told.

Notably, France and some other countries have already initiated an enquiry into the happening (as France has also in the matter of the Rafale deal, in which the French media organisation Mediapart has unearthed indications of dodgy payments).

India, contrarily, does not see fit to institute any enquiry in either the Pegasus or Rafale matter.

Some of the actual and probable targets of surveillance.

State psychology

In recent days, unaccounted drones have been spotted over Indian border areas, with one drone actually dropping an IED at an airbase in Jammu.

This is undoubtedly a cause for concern vis a vis the security of the nation.

But, wide-ranging democratic opinion also thinks that the digital attack using Pegasus which, as per expert opinion, has the capability to steal every bit of information on a smartphone, including listening  in to whatever conversation may be happening, is quite the bigger threat to constitutional democracy. This is because it makes hash of the fundamental rights of privacy granted to the Indian citizen, and fatally hollows out our claim to being an “open society” made at the recent G7 summit of democratic nations.

It is interesting, and ideologically revealing, that whereas the government focuses on the drone episodes as grave challenges to the sovereignty of the nation, it does not accord the same primacy to a cyber attack on Indians across the board. The question may then be asked: what is more terminal a menace to the edifice of Indian democracy—a woodcutter’s axe or legions of termites working from within the scaffolding?

There may thus be justification for the reading that foregrounding the drone threat is but another tactic to deflect the nation’s attention and concern from an internal subversion of great moment—one that the government of the day seems unaccountably shy to look into.

Need for probe

Given that the government seems reluctant to allow a debate on the Pegasus issue in parliament, which coincidentally now happens to be in session, an alarmed citizenry may duly hope that the Supreme Court of India will think this occurrence momentous enough to go suo motu into it.

After all, nothing less than the credibility of the state is at stake.

Given that NSO says it sells Pegasus only to governments, it is strange that Modi and his ministers – who deny targeting the individuals named – do not feel impelled to find out who it is that may be attacking democratic opinion critical of the establishment.

Can it be that the Indian republic may truly be teetering at the brink an Orwellian future?

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.