THE COUNTDOWN FOR THE NEXT ROUND OF Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, due in February-March 2022, had a tumultuous beginning in the monsoon session of Parliament, which started on July 19. Certain developments during the session and in the week preceding it unravelled the multi-pronged election-oriented stratagems of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the Centre and in four of the five election-bound States. These stratagems comprise devious techniques such as aggressive communalisation of society and politics, oppression of voices of dissent, including media establishments that have exposed the numerous failures of the BJP-ruled State and Central governments, including their abysmal record in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, and systematic creation of fear about jehadi terror attacks.
Even as the BJP was developing concerted propaganda on these lines, there were reports in national and global media alleging sustained and surreptitious digital surveillance of a number of public figures using the infamous Pegasus spyware.
This development exposed yet another stratagem employed by the top brass in the Narendra Modi-led Union government—keeping tabs on those perceived to be adversaries or irritants at the political, administrative or personal levels.
The surveillance list exposed so far contains the names of politicians, senior officials in different government departments as well as the judiciary and the Election Commission, apart from journalists, members of the legal community, business persons, scientists and rights activists. Surprisingly, even Union Ministers and persons belonging to the BJP and other constituents of the the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) were not spared.
The monsoon session also exposed the Union government’s multiple failures of governance, especially on the economic and public health fronts.
A case in point was the stunning statement made by Mansukh Mandaviya, the new Health and Family Welfare Minister, in the Rajya Sabha that there had been no deaths on account of oxygen shortage during the second wave of COVID-19. The statement, which flew in the face of shocking reports and images of people suffering, and often dying, from a lack of oxygen supply across north India, including Delhi, invited much ridicule and criticism from several quarters.
Earlier, the government failed to give a clear response to pointed questions on the number of migrant labourers in the country and the relief accorded to COVID-affected people below the poverty line. What emerged out of the monsoon session was a dismal picture of a Central government incapable of even a proper assessment of the performance of its own schemes and lacking awareness of what the general public was undergoing.
In deploying a divisive election strategy, the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh took the lead by unleashing an out-and-out communal ploy in the form of a new population policy. In simple terms, the policy seeks to deprive a section of citizens of constitutionally and legally-guaranteed rights on the basis of fertility.
The planned deprivation would be stringent and widespread and deny access to sponsored welfare schemes to those who broke the two-child norm.
In other words, hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the minority religious communities, particularly Muslims, as well as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes would be denied government jobs and even promotions.
The clauses of the policy also contained provisions to deny anyone breaking the two-child norm the right to housing, education, and various social security schemes. BJP-ruled States such as Assam and Madhya Pradesh have also announced their plans to follow in U.P.’s footsteps.
The thrust of the new policy is certainly sectarian and divisive and Sangh Parivar insiders admitted that the top-level leadership was planning to launch a campaign on this policy in the last quarter of this year, which would peak around the final phases of campaigning for the State elections.
The delimitation exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, evidently being pushed forward with an overt communal tilt, supplements this move.
Evidently, the BJP-Sangh Parivar’s election machinery was systematically crafting this familiar tactic of divisive politics, with specific additions and nuances for each region, and the monsoon session of Parliament was expected to sharpen it.
However, the Pegasus snooping expose, which hit the headlines on the very first day of the monsoon session through a global collaborative investigative project, caused a setback to the steady advancement of this plan.
In terms of details, the expose revealed that the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israel’s NSO Group, was used to tap over 300 mobile phone numbers in India, including those of two serving Ministers in the Narendra Modi government, three opposition leaders, one constitutional authority, and several journalists and business persons.
The news portal The Wire , which is part of the investigation project, said that Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit organisation, and Amnesty International gained access to a leaked global database of 50,000 telephone numbers, which they shared with 16 media partners, such as The Guardian , The Washington Post , Le Monde , and Suddeutsche Zeitung , and 11 Arab and European organisations. The list revealed by the project included names such as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor, the election strategist, Ashwini Vaishnaw, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Prahlad Singh Patel, Minister of State for Jal Shakti, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Abhishek Banerjee, aides of Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, and Vasundhara Raje Scindia, former Rajasthan Chief Minister, along with 40 journalists, including a few senior Editors.
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The report of the investigative project said that “the consortium believes the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts”.
The NSO Group declared that its customer base consisted essentially of 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 countries. The Washington Post , part of the project, added that the NSO Group did not confirm the identities of any of its customers, citing client confidentiality obligations.
The Union government’s response to the expose was on predictable lines. It said: “The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp by the Indian state. Those reports also had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp in the Indian Supreme Court.”
Amit Shah’s defence
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw sought to defend the government during their interventions in Parliament. Ironically, Vaishnaw’s name itself figures in the surveillance list.
Amit Shah once again invoked his infamous “chronology” quote, uttered in 2019 during the Central government’s moves to bring in the controversial controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
He said that he wanted to seriously say, “Aap chronology samajhiye” (realise the timing), and went on to state that “the timing of the selective leaks and the disruptions was suspicious”. He added: “This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructors. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructors are political players in India who do not want India to progress. [The] people of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection.”
On the charge that the government was using the Pegasus spyware to snoop on journalists, politicians and activists, he said it was an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”.
Both Amit Shah and Ashwini Vaishnaw claimed that the expose was timed to coincide with the start of the monsoon session of Parliament. Ashwini Vaishnaw said: “A highly sensational story was published by a web portal last night. Many over-the-top allegations have been made around this story. The press reports appeared a day before the monsoon session. This cannot be a coincidence.”
Amit Shah also talked about the timing in a statement, stating: “In what seemed like a perfect cue, late last evening we saw a report which has been amplified by a few sections with only one aim—to do whatever is possible and humiliate India in the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory.”
Ashwini Vaishnaw asserted that India had established protocols in the issue of surveillance that had stood the test of time.
He said: “I am sure my friends in the opposition, who have been in government for years, are very well aware….In India there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the Centre and in States.”
He added: “The requests for these lawful interceptions….are made as per Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and Section 69 of the IT Act, 2000. Each case of interception is approved by the competent authority. These powers are also available to the competent authorities in State governments….The law also provides an adjudication process for those people adversely affected by any such incident. When we look at this issue through the prism of logic, it clearly emerges that there is no substance whatsoever behind this sensationalism.”
Notwithstanding such rhetoric and rationalisation, the fact remained that the government was evading an answer to the most basic question: Did the government get Pegasus at any point of time? If so, what were the terms and conditions of use?
Several opposition leaders, including Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president, Abhishek Banerjee of the TMC, and a number of political and legal observers were of the view that the very absence of a categorical statement from the government on the issue indicated its culpability.
“If they had not bought it, what’s stopping from them stating that in plain, simple terms?” Akhilesh Yadav said.
The debate on the latest expose generated discussions on such incidents in the past too, such as allegations of the government’s use of Pegasus to snoop on 1,400 WhatsApp users in 2019. At that time too, the government had refused to categorically state that it had not purchased the Pegasus spyware.
Congress leaders Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh and K.K. Ragesh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had raised pointed questions on this issue in the Rajya Sabha. But even then, the Modi government adopted the same evasive stance as it has now.
Targeting activists and lawyers
Among those then targeted in India were several human rights activists and lawyers working in tribal areas. They included those accused of sedition in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case and a number of journalists reporting on defence and strategy.
In the past three months, there have been reports in the media that someone had systematically hacked the computers and other IT-enabled devices of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case to plant incriminating material with the clear intent of trapping and charging them under the sedition law.
Arsenal Consulting, a digital forensics firm of the United States, said that the damning material, including a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Modi and overthrow the government, was planted in the laptop of Rona J Wilson, one of the prime accused in the case.
Wilson had moved the courts in February 2021 seeking the setting up of a Special Investigation Team comprising retired Supreme Court or High Court judges and legal and digital experts to probe the planting of fake documents in his laptop over a 22-month period. He also sought a stay on the proceedings against him and his immediate release. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) refuted Wilson’s contentions.
Apart from Wilson, those accused in the case are: Father Stan Swamy, who died in custody on July 5, P. Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Shona Sen, Arun Ferreira, Sagar Gorkhe, Mahesh Raut, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, and Hany Babu. Varavara Rao has been granted bail on health grounds.
Arsenal Consulting’s claims with regard to the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case have assumed greater relevance in the context of the Pegasus project expose.
When the government was foisting cases on these academics and social activists in 2018, political and social observers, intellectuals and opposition party leaders said that it was part of a nationalism-versus-sedition campaign concocted by the Sangh Parivar and advanced by the Modi regime with distinctive political goals. Evidently, the Pegasus expose makes it imperative to take a thorough relook at the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case and scrutiny of all the details.
Although opposition parties as a whole have rallied against the Pegasus issue, holding the senior leadership of the government, especially Amit Shah, responsible for setting up a surveillance regime, none of them has made any specific demand for reconsideration of the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case.
Setback to Parivar
The Pegasus issue steadily disrupted the functioning of Parliament during the first week of the monsoon session. Several members of various sections of the Sangh Parivar perceived this to be a setback to the Parivar’s plans, and fear that the inability to promote their divisive agenda during the session and strengthen their campaign in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam may have negatively impact the Hindutva agenda in the short and medium terms.
However, there is also the view within the Sangh Parivar that new issues and controversies can be raked up in other areas to overshadow the Pegasus-related developments. Several Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that the controversy over the Income Tax Department’s raids on leading media organisations such as Dainik Bhaskar and the Bharat Samachar television channel, and the homes of their owners and editors, definitely had the potential to be one such alternative.
The raids were conducted at several places, including Lucknow and Bhopal, on July 22.
Raids on media outfits
The Dainik Bhaskar group as well as the Bharat Samachar channel had carried insightful reports during the COVID pandemic as a whole, particularly during the second wave, with details on the number of bodies floating in the Ganga, the oxygen crisis, and the absolute lack of public health care facilities under the Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.
In the third week of May this year, Dainik Bhaskar had deployed its team of 30 journalists all along the 1,140-kilometre-long banks of the Ganga and exposed the shocking ineptitude of Uttar Pradesh’s public health system and the high rate of deaths in several districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Through this intense and collective reporting exercise, the paper had reported the sighting of “over 2,000 bodies” either floating or buried along the river banks.
The two media outfits were also extremely critical of the Adityanath government’s attempts to cover up the gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl at Hathras, a U.P. village, and the manner in which the State police sought to shield the accused.
Opposition leaders as well as political and media observers have highlighted the connection between the Income Tax Department’s raids and the penetrating reportage by the two media outfits. Akhilesh Yadav said these raids happened because both the Modi government at the Centre and the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh refuse to stomach any criticism. He said: “Their games and manoeuvres are weakening democracy on a day-to-day basis. If someone speaks on behalf of the people and exposes the government, organisations such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department are deployed to intimidate them.”
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Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati and Ajay Kumar Lallu, Uttar Pradesh Congress president, also criticised the raids. While Mayawati likened the raids to the Indira Gandhi government’s high-handed actions during the Emergency, Ajay Kumar Lallu said that the fascist nature of the Modi-Adityanath regimes had been exposed yet again.
A senior RSS activist based in Lucknow told Frontline , rather disparagingly, that the raids on the media houses were a clear signal and a stern warning to all voices trying to find fault with the government in Uttar Pradesh. He said: “The message is very simple. Fall in line, or we will go to any extreme to subdue you. The other message is that come what may, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar will not budge from their set goals. For the next few months, the single-point action plan is retaining power in the 2022 Assembly elections and the strategies and tactics for this are converging beautifully despite pinpricks like Pegasus revelations.”
He also asserted that the new population policy and the propaganda on jehadi threats would be central to the campaign in the State.
Large sections of the Uttar Pradesh BJP leadership and the Sangh Parivar are indeed gung-ho about the political potential of this plan, but there is a small section that argues that ultimately, the new policy would have a bigger negative impact on the Scheduled Tribes, Dalits, and a section of Other Backward Castes.
This section, consisting primarily of Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders, has apparently warned Adityanath and other advocates of the population policy to proceed with caution as it may boomerang. But Adityanath and his supporters have reportedly responded by stating that the campaign on the policy could be developed well on an anti-minority communal platform.
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By all indications, this plan may involve the orchestration of a number of communally charged situations modelled on the 2013 riots in western Uttar Pradesh.
These discussions are indeed alarming and expose the face of a regime hell-bent on retaining power regardless of the social cost of its sectarian agenda.