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HomeArticlePegasus: India’s Watergate Moment

Pegasus: India’s Watergate Moment

Sushant Singh

 “Congratulations!” That was the most common message of support I received from friends and well-wishers after the July 18 news that my name was featured in a list of journalists whose cellphones had been targeted by the Israeli military-grade spyware Pegasus. I had known since June that I was on the list. My friend and colleague Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of India’s independent news portal The Wire—one of the 17 global media partners of this worldwide investigation—was somber when he first informed me. After I agreed to cooperate with the investigation, my device was checked by Amnesty International in early July. They found that my cellphone had been infiltrated by Pegasus as recently as a couple of days earlier.

The leaked data for the investigation, provided by the Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories, indicated that my cellphone was first placed on the snooping list in July 2018, when I was a deputy editor at The Indian Express newspaper. That year, I won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka award for excellence in journalism, awarded for my reporting on three major news stories: the sacking and replacement of the head of India’s premier federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation; the internal conflict and turmoil at the highest levels of India’s Supreme Court over allegations of corruption and induction of new judges; and the multibillion-dollar deal between India and France for Rafale fighter jets, where allegations of wrongdoing, cronyism, and overpricing had gained ground. The deal became a major issue in India’s 2019 national elections.

Although the Rafale deal remains a politically sensitive issue for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the list of Indians targeted by Pegasus goes beyond journalists and activists. It allegedly includes top political leaders, constitutional functionaries, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, scientists, diplomats, and businesspeople. Because the Israeli cyber weapon is claimed to be sold only to “vetted governments” for use against terrorists and criminals, the snooping list denotes that the Indian democratic framework is no longer free and fair. This is no less than India’s Watergate moment.

If India’s institutions fail to stand up and press Modi’s government for answers, it could well mark the demise of the world’s largest democracy. The onus is also on another democracy, Israel, to come clean and take steps to cancel India’s Pegasus license for violation of contractual obligations.

This is not the first time revelations about Pegasus being used against Indian activists and journalists have come to light. In 2019, the messaging service WhatsApp provided the Indian government with a list of 121 people whose cellphones had been snooped on by Pegasus. WhatsApp has taken NSO Group, the manufacturer of Pegasus, to court for hacking the app to infiltrate phones. A report by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, showed that an operator named GANGES has been active in India since June 2017. After questions were raised in the Indian Parliament, the government resorted to obfuscation in its reply, neither confirming nor denying it had bought Pegasus from its Israeli manufacturer. Meanwhile, the media diverted focus toward WhatsApp when the culprit was really military-grade spyware.

But the details that have emerged in the recent revelations are of a different order. The cellphones of India’s top opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, his two close aides, and five nonpolitical friends were hacked by Pegasus in the run up to the 2019 national elections, which Modi won. During that election campaign, one of the election commissioners—a constitutional functionary—objected to Modi’s polarizing speeches. His phone, as well as that of a journalist reporting his official stance, was compromised by Pegasus.

India’s top political consultant, Prashant Kishor, who helped make Modi prime minister in 2014 but has since been behind some of the most humiliating defeats inflicted on his party in provincial elections, was also hacked. Among others surveilled were two ministers in Modi’s own cabinet. And in a stunning incident illustrating the political dimension of the snoop web, the leaks revealed that cellphones of top political leaders and their aides in the opposition-run Karnataka state were hacked shortly before Modi’s party brought down the government through defections and established its own government in 2019.

Every democratic institution in India has been bullied and blackmailed through the use of military-grade cyber weaponry. A junior woman staffer in India’s Supreme Court, who accused then-Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019, is revealed to have had 11 of her and her family’s cellphones targeted by Pegasus. After dismissing the charges against himself, Gogoi, who ruled in favor of the government in crucial cases—including the Rafale case, the Babri Masjid mosque case, and a case involving illegal detentions in Kashmir—was nominated to parliament by Modi in 2020. Another Supreme Court judge’s cellphone was allegedly snooped on as were cellphones of many lawyers working on politically sensitive cases.

The exhaustive list leaves no sphere of India’s sociopolitical landscape free of Pegasus’s hacking. A host of human rights activists, civil society actors, and leaders of nonprofits, including the head of India’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation branch, have been hacked. India’s top virologist, Gagandeep Kang, has not been spared either. Some business executives, particularly those involved in the Rafale deal, have also been snooped on by the Israeli spyware. To top it all off, there are more than 40 journalists on the list, many of whom have reported on news critical of policies and decisions Modi or his top party leaders made.

The closest parallel to the breadth and nature of India’s Pegasus snooping is the infamous 1972 to 1974 Watergate scandal in the United States, when it emerged then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration tried to cover up its role spying on the Democratic Party. But the current Pegasus-based snooping goes a step further. Although Nixon targeted his opposition, Modi’s government has allegedly targeted the judiciary, election authorities, journalists, and federal investigative officials.

While Nixon was ultimately charged with a cover-up of his misdemeanors, Modi’s government refuses to categorically deny it has procured or employed Pegasus. Modi’s second in command, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, argued: “This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations, which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress.”

If Modi’s government is hoping to brazen out the current global storm, it is treading in Nixon’s footsteps. It took two years of dogged work by the U.S. media, judiciary, and legislature after the Watergate scandal first came to light to force Nixon to resign from office in 1974.

Many global watchdogs have warned of democratic erosion in India under Modi’s Hindu majoritarian government. The government took offense when the V-Dem Institute called India an “electoral autocracy” and Freedom House classified it as “partly free” as these groups meticulously called out New Delhi’s steamrolling of democratic checks and balances. There is no stronger evidence of this trend than the exalted company Modi’s government finds itself in as the Pegasus investigation goes on: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Pegasus investigation showcases how every democratic institution in India has been bullied and blackmailed through the use of military-grade cyber weaponry. If a similar military-grade conventional weapon—like a bomb, a missile, or an explosive—were used by the government against its own citizens, how would the institutions respond? Will no one be held accountable when leaders deploy intrusive spyware against their opponents and own citizens? The onus is now on key Indian institutions—the three pillars of media, judiciary, and legislature—to demonstrate they have it in them to hold a powerful and popular leader like Modi accountable. India’s future as a democracy is at a crossroads: The country could either emerge stronger from this trial by fire or it could mark the demise of a truly exceptional experiment in democratic history in India’s 75th year of independence.

The Pegasus investigation is a moment of reckoning for the rest of the democratic world too. Israel, another proud democracy, has a lot to answer for about the sale of Pegasus, meant to surveil criminals and terrorists but instead used against civilians in a variety of countries. In a statement, the Israeli government said it “approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counterterrorism. … In cases where exported items are used in violation of export licenses or end-use certificates, appropriate measures are taken.”

Even though India has not officially admitted to being an NSO customer, many newspapers have reported that New Delhi is believed to have leased Pegasus. The Guardian said surveillance of Indian cellphone numbers largely commenced around the time of Modi’s 2017 visit to Israel, which matches the Citizen Lab report’s conclusions. If Israel was to abide by its stated rules, it would have no option but to come clean and revoke India’s Pegasus license.

These latest revelations pose equally tough questions for the United States. In a bid to counter an authoritarian Beijing, the Biden administration has positioned New Delhi as its major democratic partner in the region. Modi’s authoritarian and anti-democratic moves have often earned only mild rebukes from successive U.S. administrations. (Stronger words have reportedly been used in private conversations with Indian officials.)

Now, the Biden administration may have to go public to stop New Delhi from regressing further down an authoritarian road. It has to do so not only to ensure the success of its Indo-Pacific strategy but to help 1.4 billion Indians fulfill their democratic dream. Indian democracy has also long been a beacon for other developing countries. There is too much for the world to lose if India’s democratic backsliding continues.

Democracies are, of course, not like individuals. When my cellphone was hacked, I could survive the ordeal to tell my story. But when a democracy is hacked, it runs the risk of dying, with no one left to tell its story. That is my fear of today’s India. That fear must not be allowed to come true. COURTESY: FOREIGN POLICY

The author is a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India.

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