Snooping Row: Democracy Dented

Snooping Row: Democracy Dented

Parliament’s monsoon session turned out to be disappointing, with the Modi government refusing to yield to the Opposition demand for a discussion on Pegasus, the snooping controversy. With the Supreme Court hearing a number of petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into the reports of allegedly spying on politicians, activists, journalists among others, the Union government has decided to set up a Committee of Experts to examine the issue. What is of interest is that it has categorically denied all the allegations and claimed the petitions are based on ‘conjectures’ and ‘there is no substance in the accusations’.

However, till date the government has not denied purchasing the software from the Israeli government. And while it rubbishes the petitions, independent forensic analysis on several of  phones in the target list, has shown these were indeed infected by the spyware. Since the snooping scandal broke out, 500-odd citizens from various walks of life had addressed an open letter to Chief Justice Ramana, seeking immediate intervention demanding answers from the Centre as well as Editors Guild of India and two senior journalists petitioning it.

In its response to these, the Ministry of Electronics and IT said on Monday last, that it is setting up the committee ‘to dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests’. And though it would like to go into a denial mode, it is pertinent to note that the Supreme Court has asked the Centre if it would file an affidavit clarifying whether or not it had purchased and used Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens.

Governments spying on their populace serve two purposes. The first is active coercion — finding critics and punishing them. The second is passive coercion, i.e. the chilling effect on citizens stemming from the knowledge that the government is watching them. But such snooping can only happen in autocratic regimes, not in a declared democracy like India.

Spying is an ancient statecraft even if the present mechanism is more sophisticated. It is believed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, among many global leaders, were victims of tapping by American intelligence agencies. Even in earlier times, Former Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was said to have been closely watched by foreign secret service agents.

The NSO, the Israeli group that owned Pegasus, has said openly that it only licenses the product to governments. Thus, it is obvious that hacking of the phones of political opponents, journalists, activists and others, would be by a government agency only. The US and other European countries are rather indifferent to the scandal, as they see India as a strategic partner, specially in countering China. And perhaps that’s the reason they choose to ignore the wounds the Modi government is inflicting on this country. But in mature democracies, ruling dispensations must at least appear to heed the views of their people.

The charges of snooping, if they are true, would force India to share space with autocratic countries. That some Islamic nation states are keeping tabs on Muslim citizens with an Israeli product shows that traditional enmity can be swept aside for the sake of power. Autocratic countries like China do not need to use foreign spyware to keep a tab on their citizens. Not only have they developed similar technology but the idea of Big Brother watching is integral to the notion of state craft.

The truth is that societies themselves have become more intolerant than before. The prejudiced and oppressive regimes and right-wing political outfits all draw support and a tacit consent from an unusually intolerant society. Critics across the world have rightly pointed out that in India, the last few years has clearly shown that the government is unusually intolerant of criticism and this has been specially manifest in the past three years. Governments in many States and the Centre itself has been using provisions of the IPC Section 124A to gag critics of authorities by applying a second meaning of sedition that is, “agitation against the authority of a State”.

The lack of Opposition unity and their failure to make a dent in the national scenario is a major hindrance for the government to assert its authority in a crude manner. Added to this, over centralisation and autocratic tendency of the present government to retain power may have led to such snooping charge. Social scientists point out that clinging to power by hook or by crook and appreciation from sycophants’ lead political leaders to shed their democratic spirit, as it has happened in India. Also accumulation of wealth is another provocation for retaining power.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi rightly pointed out that the government has been able to bulldoze the Opposition that represents 60 per cent of the population only because “we are not united”. Conceding that there were differences among parties, he said there was complete agreement on at least the Pegasus snooping. This could be a cementing factor to ensure a united approach and keep up the federal spirit of the country.

The privacy of the individual is ignored and also his right to expression. In Parliament there is no statement from the government, clarifying its position on the issue, which is an indirect admission that snooping has been carried out on those who are considered dissenters. The abrogation of the rights of citizens has been clearly manifest.

The checks and balances in the political system have been virtually non-existent with the party in power yielding enormous power and caring less for good governance. In fact, the lack of thrift, decency and objectivity in governance has been found to cause more practical harm than breaches of notional democracy. Not tolerating civil servants who do not toe the official line, the studied avoidance of the media and the scorn for legislative authority, evident in the refusal to answer questions on snooping, is not an end in itself.

It can easily be concluded that democratic spirit is virtually absent in most countries and dissent is not tolerated. Most governments are behaving worse than dictatorships of the past and India is no better. In these countries, there is no decentralisation of power and, even in India, political decentralisation has not taken proper form. Though there is much talk of cooperative federalism, this has not become a reality, obviously due to control from the top.

The future does not look quite bright as the State being an embodiment of power, the temptation to deal with citizens unilaterally is second nature to it. Hence, the need to put in place effective checks and balances, though it is easier said than done. Democracy is the best mode of governance; only if there is reciprocity between the ruler and the ruled.

As is well known, accountability is a function of reciprocity. The unilateralism that snooping symbolizes has widely metastasized into our public life. It is inadequate, therefore, to see snooping only as an intrusion into personal privacy. The seminal issue in snooping is not that privacy is breached – admittedly that happens – but that unilateralism has become the character of life today.


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Snooping Row: Democracy Dented