Pegasus scandal has potential to unsettle Modi

Timing of release of report significant

By Devasis Chattopadhyay

Just when the monsoon session of the Indian parliament was about to begin, the Pegasus scandal resurfaced and created a political row in the country, two years after it initially came to light. For the record, Pegasus, the sophisticated spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-security and tech company NSO could take over the control of your mobile phone without your knowledge.
Unlike the last time, now, the scandal grew in proportion tangling influential politicians, well-known journalists, and political game-makers in the country with names of targets of potential hacking coming out in instalments. The media reportage, including by The Guardian, The Washington Post and India’s thewire.in, was triggered by a bank of data first accessed by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, and the United Kingdom headquartered global non-governmental human rights organization Amnesty International. Forbidden Stories said that the list it had shared with the international media outlets comprises intended targets of Pegasus. However, the Israeli company NSO through a press release clarified that just because a phone number appeared in the datasheet did not mean it was successfully targeted or compromised.
Pegasus had been under the scanner, over its surveillance activities, for a while now. In September 2018, The Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity organisation, had published a report identifying 45 countries, including India, in which the spyware was being used. In October 2019, WhatsApp revealed that journalists and human rights activists in India had been targets of surveillance through Pegasus. However, Israeli company NSO never named the buyers of its software, such as Pegasus. But, its website said, ‘NSO Group develops best-in-class technology to help government agencies detect and prevent a wide-range of local and global threats. NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror’.
The current session of parliament is supposed to continue till August 13 and would hopefully be the first full session of our parliament in recent times, since Covid19 invaded our shores. According to all available reports, nearly all Opposition parties in India raised issues related to fuel prices, farm laws, Covid19 and the state of our economy during the all-party meeting last Sunday, the day before parliament was to start. The DMK raised the issue of GST devolution and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi appealed to the central government to make public sector units profitable and not opt for disinvestment. The Samajwadi Party accused the BJP government of passing bills in a hurry and alleging that the Maharashtra and West Bengal governors had belittled the respective chief ministers of the states.
Mismanagement of the Indian economy since 2014 and lackadaisical handling of Covid19 by our central government created an enormous pressure on fiscal position. Most of the economic indicators are off the target and almost ruined. The huge investments required to salvage the economy are not on the horizon. On top of these, the BJP lost decisively in West Bengal. The Punjab and the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections ought to happen next year but already started warming up the knuckles of the electorates. So, from here on, it would be an uphill task for the BJP led central government.
Hence, the timing of the leak of the current round of Pegasus data just before the monsoon session of the Indian parliament by a France based media NGO, the country where Rafael deal has reached the court on the premise of a bribery theory to the powerful Indian power-brokers, along with Amnesty International, the organisation much maligned by the BJP government, would be too much of a coincidence. Hence, leak of the Pegasus papers at this juncture is an interesting phenomenon.
Add to this that on July 3, just about a fortnight before the Pegasus paper leaks, ‘France begins judicial probe into Rafale deal with India’ screamed the French media.
On July 4, the US based economist Kaushik Basu revealed details of a January 2015 meeting in the White House with former US President Obama, whereby he had advised former US President Barack Obama to remind the BJP government of India’s traditional and well-established commitment to democracy and secularism during his visit as chief guest at the Republic Day Parade in 2015, which Obama did touch upon during his speech at Siri Fort on the last day of his visit on January 27, 2015.
The question again is why did Kaushik Basu speak about the Obama incident now? Is it because the Democrats are in power in the US now? What happened after that speech in 2015? Regime change took place in America. Republicans came in. Donald Trump happened. The Republicans and the BJP became awfully close. ‘Howdy Modi’ took place.
And, on July 19, the day the current round of Pegasus papers were circulating, the U.S. came out with a policy memo where the US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the ‘US Won’t Force Journalists To Reveal Sources’. The new policy came following revelations that former president Donald Trump’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of journalists investigating his administration, including from CNN, the Washington Post and New York Times. The current U.S. administration was seen to be distancing itself from the use of spyware like Pegasus.
When in January this year a Democrat President took charge in the White House, once again, foreign policy shifts were expected. Rumblings and covert indications of the seismic shifts could be felt even before.
Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defence policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent, had said in November last year that, ‘there is likely to be an increase in constituencies in America that voice concern about Indian democracy and India’s treatment of minorities.’ He had also said that there were rising concerns in the United States about these issues. However, he added that there would be a real possibility that if Democrats raise these issues officially their Republican opponents might choose to take an opposite stand. If that happens the traditional bipartisan consensus could easily erode and lead to India becoming a football or a partisan issue in US politics.
He had further said that ‘This promise notwithstanding, uncertainties abound as New Delhi swiftly pivots to deal with the incoming US administration. Modi’s conspicuous embrace of Trump can be explained away by saying his actions served India well in their time. But the gnawing qualms surrounding possible shifts in US policy cannot be dismissed as easily’.
Many in the USA see ‘Howdy Modi’ as an unwarranted foreign policy misadventure and it was considered an unnecessary intrusion to the domestic politics of an immensely powerful sovereign nation. And, when seemingly chips are down in India for the ruling party, if we are to believe Sir Isaac Newton’s third law – opposite intrusion would be expected, covertly, in all probability. (IPA Service)

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