Pegasus spyware scandal

Pegasus scandal: Modi government on the back foot

Print edition : August 27, 2021

In Lok Sabha during the monsoon session of Parliament on August 5. Angry opposition protests over the Pegasus revelations stalled House proceedings from the start of the monsoon session. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah before the BJP’s parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on August 3. Photo: PTI

The Pegasus revelations have galvanised the opposition into a programme of collective action that the government seems unable to ignore.

Barely a month and a half ago, several leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Union Home Minister Amit Shah, repeatedly asserted that notwithstanding the victories of opposition parties in the Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, they were no match for the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the parliamentary arena. Their refrain was that the ruling party’s strength in Parliament was supreme. But, on August 3, addressing his party’s Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the opposition was insulting Parliament by continuously stalling it on the Pegasus snooping issue. He added that the insult was not just to Parliament but also to the people of India, the Constitution and democracy. However, he advised them to maintain “sanyam” (restraint) in face of the opposition protests that effectively blocked the functioning of both Houses of Parliament on every single day since the commencement of the monsoon session on July 19. Though couched in accusatory terms, Modi’s statement is practically an admission that the opposition parties have held sway over the current session.

Sheetal P. Singh, political analyst and co-founder of SatyaHindi news portal, pointed out that Modi acknowledging the opposition’s firepower in Parliament marks a distinctive shift from the derision and disparagement with which the BJP, particularly Modi and Shah, have treated the opposition over the last seven years. “The leaders of this regime have been thoroughly dismissive of the opposition. But now there is a grudging acceptance that the opposition has mounted a consistent attack. The cautionary calls for restraint from the ruling side’s parliamentarians underscores this acceptance of the opposition’s domination. Undoubtedly, a key factor leading to this shift is the Pegasus revelations and the manner in which the opposition parties have rallied around the issue to corner the government. In turn, this scandal has given the opposition an opportunity to expose the Modi government’s many weaknesses. In response to demands to come clean on whether it bought the spyware and, if so, who its targets were, the government has dubbed it as a “non-issue”. This has failed to evoke confidence in the government, and even the performance of senior Ministers in the face of these questions has been broadly rated as a calculated cover-up. But the opposition’s unity in Parliament is only one of the many factors that point to a larger churning, the signals of which one can see amidst almost all sections of the society.”

Widespread resentment

Agreeing with Sheetal P. Singh, a retired senior Army officer told Frontline that the Modi government’s stubborn refusal to give answers to pointed questions on the Pegasus revelations and its repeated rejection of demands for a parliamentary debate on the issue has become a matter of widespread concern. “The sense that the government has to hide something or is driven by hubris on this issue is spreading among the people, irrespective of divisions of class, caste and community. Many segments of the population, such as the farmers and the unemployed youth, are already enraged by the government’s omissions and commissions in issues relating to them. The Pegasus mystery has aggravated their sense of disillusionment with the Modi regime. The Supreme Court’s preliminary comments on the judicial appeals seeking a probe on the revelations, indicating that the government cannot evade giving clear responses, have also deepened the scepticism in the air,” the former officer pointed out.

Also read: Surveillance state: The Pegasus saga unravels in India

Travelling across a number districts of Uttar Pradesh in the first week of July, Frontline was witness to this “scepticism in the air”. Apart from the persisting rage among farming communities on the controversial farm laws and its manifold impact on the sector, a ubiquitous refrain was about the “back-breaking” price rise of commodities and the continuing absence of even the most basic employment opportunities. When Frontline raised questions about Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s claims regarding improvement in crucial economic indicators and the “positive impact of her five mini-budgets to boost the economy”, the most common response was a categorical rejection of these claims. A wayside tea seller on the Agra highway said: “The government may claim anything, but there is no reflection of this in our everyday lives.”

A group of university students who had gathered at some institutions in Lucknow for a competitive examination were emphatic that the government was fudging figures on employment. Shishir Tyagi, a student of M.Com, said: “The Ministry adopts different parameters to advance its claim. When it comes to calculating the rate of unemployment it falls back on the usual method of gauging unemployment over the past year. But post COVID and after the massive exodus migrant workers India has witnessed, the universally adopted method is to calculate the rate of unemployment over the past week – the current weekly status. By covering up these figures, which show how unemployment is growing, the government is trying to bamboozle us.” In the immediate context of the Pegasus revelations exposing what looks like a surveillance regime, all such questions of life and livelihood are getting increasingly and seriously highlighted among various sections of society.

The churning that this has created across almost all sections of the population manifested itself in many ways at the political level. On August 3, the day the Prime Minister spoke to his party’s MPs, the Janata Dal (United), a key ally of the ruling party in the important north Indian State of Bihar, broke ranks on the Pegasus issue and echoed the very demands that the united opposition has been making, including the demand for an inquiry and a thorough debate in the two Houses of Parliament. Talking to the media in Patna, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stated in no uncertain terms that there should be a discussion in Parliament on the matter. “Phone-tapping has been discussed for a long time. People have been talking about it [the Pegasus revelations] in Parliament. People can be harassed and disturbed with phone-tapping. Also, one does not know what are the different means of tapping one’s phone these days. So there must be a probe.”

Also read: Commission of Inquiry set up by West Bengal government to probe Pegasus spyware controversy

According to JD(U) insiders, there is a good reason for Nitish Kumar to get incensed on the Pegasus issue. The political strategist Prashant Kishor, who has been identified as one of the main targets from India in the Pegasus revelations, was working with the JD(U) between September 2018 and January 2020. In fact, he was part of the JD(U) during this period and was in constant touch with senior leaders. “Targeting his phone is a serious issue for the Chief Minister,” a senior JD(U) leader told Frontline. There were also murmurs within Bihar’s political circles that some sort of snooping had preceded Nitish Kumar’s return to the BJP-NDA fold in 2017. The JD (U) was an ally of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, and this alliance had stormed to power in 2015, defeating the BJP and its allies.

Another BJP ally in Bihar, the Hindustani Awami Morcha (HAM) led by former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, has also called for investigations into the Pegasus revelations. HAM leaders who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity were of the view that the stance of the BJP’s allies from Bihar might be driven by larger political factors that were not conspicuous at the moment. One of them said: “The recent comments of JD(U) national parliamentary board chairman Upendra Kushwaha are particularly interesting in this regard. Out of the blue, he has once again asserted that Nitish Kumar is and will always be Prime Minister material. We will have to wait and see why he said this out of context and what is behind this.” Several BJP leaders took note of Kushwaha’s remarks. Their response was that there was no vacancy for the top post at the Centre though Nitish Kumar and his followers were free to make whatever projections they deemed fit.

Kushwaha had made these remarks even as Nitish Kumar was getting ready to meet Om Prakash Chautala, former Haryana Chief Minister and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader, in Delhi on August 1. Chautala spent close to 10 years in prison following his conviction in a corruption case and was released in July 2021. Since then, he has been on a self-professed campaign to unite all non-BJP, non-Congress parties reviving the spirit of the secular “National Front” politics of the 1990s.

Collective action

Whatever the future trajectory of this initiative, the collective opposition action, jointly advanced by a number of parties including the Congress, has dominated the political discourse during the monsoon session within and outside Parliament. On August 3, leaders of 15 parties met outside Parliament. Initiated by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the meeting was attended by leaders of the Congress, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) the Shiv Sena, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK), the RJD, the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha( JMM), the National Conference, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the Kerala Congress-Mani (KCM) and the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD).

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the Congress spokesperson, described the meeting as a trailer for 2024 (when the next general election is due), though other parties refrained from making such election-oriented projections. Singhvi said that there was one single word uppermost on everybody’s lips and everybody’s mind, and that was “unity, unity, and unity”. “This shows you the new resolve, the new direction, the new momentum and the new determination and grit,” he said. Apart from Rahul Gandhi, the Congress was represented by senior leaders like Mallikarjuna Kharge, P. Chidambaram and K.C. Venugopal. Saugata Roy and Kalyan Banerjee of the TMC, Sanjay Raut and Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena, Manoj Jha of the RJD, Kanimozhi from the DMK, Ram Gopal Yadav from the S.P., Elamaran Kareem of the CPI(M) and Binoy Viswam of the CPI were present.

Also read: India: Privacy in peril

Speaking at the meeting, Rahul Gandhi said the collective of opposition parties represented 60 per cent of the voice of the country. “And we are treated as if we represent nobody. When the government shuts us up in Parliament, humiliates us…they are not just humiliating us as Members of Parliament… they are humiliating and shutting up the voice of the people of India and the majority of the voice of India.” In a social media post following the meet he added: “When we stand together as a united opposition, no one can drown out our voice.” In many ways, Prime Minister Modi’s accusations on the same day against the opposition for stalling the proceedings is an affirmation of sorts of Rahul Gandhi’s observations.

Yet the government stuck to its high-handed ways, “bulldozing” as many as 22 Bills in just eight days of the monsoon session. As the TMC Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien pointed out, these Bills were passed after discussions lasting under 10 minutes on an average. According to charts shared by O’Brien, the government passed its first Bill of this session, the Factoring Regulation Bill, a week after it commenced, following just 13 minutes of discussion. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha after five minutes of discussion, while two appropriation Bills were passed following a three-minute discussion each. The Rajya Sabha passed the Juvenile Justice Bill, which allows a Juvenile Justice Board to determine the nature of the crime and whether the juvenile should be tried as a minor or a child, after a five-minute discussion. The longest time was spent on the Inland Vessels Bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha after a discussion of 28 minutes. O’Brien questioned these quick-fire legislative actions, asking whether the government was “passing legislation or making papri chaat”. Evidently, along with the damning expose of the Modi government as a possible builder and perpetrator of a surveillance state, the current monsoon session has also underscored its long-standing track record of subverting parliamentary practices and democracy.

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