2021 has not been a very good year for the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The economy, that had tanked in 2020, was not showing any real signs of recovery. The dispute with China on heights of Eastern Ladakh, was far from resolved. The protests against the controversial Farm Bills, that had started in 2020, had spilt into this year, refusing to fizzle out. And then there was the Second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, ravaging through the nation, belying all premature celebrations about beating the virus. This period saw the PM’s international image taking a real beating. Just as the nation was coming to terms with the devastation of the second wave, we woke up to the scandal that is the Pegasus Snoopgate.
On 18th July evening it was reported that the phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists were on a hacking list of an unidentified agency using Israeli spyware Pegasus. Forensic tests had confirmed the presence of the military-grade spyware on some devices.
The report further added that most of the journalists were targeted between 2018 and 2019, leading up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, claimed that its spyware was offered to only “vetted governments“. Though the Israeli firm refused to disclose the list of its clients, the presence of the spyware’s infections and the list of people who may have been selected for targeting, was a strong enough evidence of the government of India’s involvement.
In India, this report was published by The Wire in collaboration with sixteen international news outlets like Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, to name a few. The investigation was carried out by Paris-based Forbidden Stories and human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
The Indian government’s response was swift and on expected lines. The Centre countered within minutes of the publication of the report, saying that the allegations had no concrete basis and it was committed to safeguarding every citizen’s right to privacy as their fundamental right. The Govt went so far as to state that this entire exercise was a conspiracy based on “conjectures and exaggerations”, aimed solely at maligning the Indian democracy and its institutions.
The Indian list, as it got revealed gradually, is an interesting mix. Apart from the hitherto mentioned 40 journalists, it ranged from opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Abhishek Banerjee, ministers in the current dispensation, aides to leaders of the ruling party, to industrialists and members of the legal fraternity.
Within 48 hours of the first breaking story, the government mounted its second round of defence. On two fronts. The first was a statement by the NSO Group, which claimed that the allegations were “false and misleading”, based on “wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”, devoid of “factual basis and far from reality”. The statement issued by the firm further added that they were considering a defamation lawsuit.
The second was a purported statement by Amnesty International disowning the entire report. This statement was circulated by the eco-system that is supportive of the dispensation in Delhi. Needless to say, this was found out to be fake and probably a concoction of the ruling party’s infamous IT Cell.
As more revelations tumbled out, the govt sent in a series of ministers to rubbish the report. From the newly appointed IT Minister, Mr. Ashwini Vaishnaw, whose name incidentally appears on the list, to the Home Minister Amit Shah, who is directly in the opposition’s line of fire.
It is, however, interesting to note that, while the government has labelled this issue as a “non-serious matter”, at no point has it unambiguously denied being a client of the NSO Group.
But India is not the only country impacted by Pegasus. Reports have surfaced that the spyware has been used by governments around the world to snoop on more than 50,000 people in as many as 50 countries.
It also showed that at least 10 governments were NSO customers. Reportedly these countries are: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Among world leaders, the French President Emmanuel Macron leads a list of 14 current or former heads of state who may have been targeted for hacking by clients of the NSO Group, the report revealed. The phones of French President and 15 members of his government may have been among potential targets in 2019 of surveillance by spyware. The report follows an announcement by the Paris prosecutor’s office that it is investigating the suspected widespread use of Pegasus spyware to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians in multiple countries.
Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on reports that Morocco’s security forces may have used the Pegasus spyware to snoop on his phones.
However, the Moroccan government has denied reports that the country’s security forces used the spyware to eavesdrop on the French president.
Among other countries, the list of potential targets includes Presidents Imran Khan of Pakistan, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Barham Salih of Iraq. Three current prime ministers and the king of Morocco Mohammed VI.
As a response to this report, the Israeli Defence Ministry is considering investigating the NSO Group, reviewing the group’s activities and the licensing process.
On its part, The United States has reiterated its stand against the use of spying technology on civil society, regime critics, and journalists, while avoiding any direct reference to India.
Barring India, Hungary is the only govt that has adopted a stance of staunch denial. The Hungarian list includes the numbers of at least 10 lawyers, an opposition politician and five journalists. The phones of two journalists at the Hungarian Pegasus project partner, the investigative outlet Direkt36, were successfully infected with the spyware. The politician on the list is Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest and the most likely challenger to Orbán for the prime minister’s post at elections next spring. The latter has led a call for the resignation of the Minister of Justice, at the very least. But the far-right govt, led by Viktor Orban has refused to allow any discussion or debate in the parliament. Incidentally, Hungary has been confirmed as a client of the NSO Group by a former employee of the Israeli firm.
What are the ramifications of the Pegasus Snoopgate on the Indian government?
As more names get revealed and the Pegasus net spreads wider, the government and especially the top two men in the dispensation have every reason to feel cagey.
It has emerged that the spyware might have had a role in the toppling of the Congress-JDS government in Karnataka in 2019. Phone numbers of the then Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and Congress leader Siddaramaiah were possible targets of surveillance along with the phone numbers of some of the prominent and key political players of the state. The timing of their selection coincided with the period that saw the abrupt resignation of 17 MLAs which led to a trust vote and the subsequent fall of the coalition government.
The telephone numbers of several prominent activists are also part of a leaked database accessed by the Pegasus Project, which include individuals confirmed to have been targeted with the spyware.
Latest reports have suggested that the spyware had also possibly targeted the Indian judiciary, Jammu & Kashmir activists, leaders from ULFA and AASU in Assam, as well as the leadership of NSCN (I-M) in Nagaland.
All of these are bound to raise serious questions regarding the functioning of the government. Some of the allegations coupled with the names that have been revealed, notably those of Anil Ambani and former CBI Chief Alok Verma, might lead to rather uncomfortable questions regarding a controversy that refuses to die, the Rafale deal. The fact that a Paris court has ordered investigation into allegations of institutional bribery in the said deal, makes the matter murkier.
These developments have created a rare situation where the opposition parties seem to be united, demanding a debate in both the houses of the Parliament and a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the scandal. Even JDU, BJP’s ally in Bihar has broken ranks and come out in support of this demand. Mounting his attack on the Centre, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Pegasus is an Israeli classified weapon, meant to be used against terrorists, that has been used by the government against the institutions of India. Pegasus has been used as a weapon against political opponents and amounts to nothing less than treason, he added.
The BJP on its part has fielded its senior leaders across the country including state chief ministers to counter the allegations over the Pegasus row.
In its latest statement, NSO Group said it will no longer respond to media inquiries on the ongoing row. The company added it will not play along with the “vicious and slanderous campaign”.
The only way to lay to rest all doubts and allegations regarding Pegasus would be to allow for a debate and an impartial enquiry into the scandal. Being bracketed with Orban’s Hungary, is something that does not augur well for the largest democracy in the world. Besides, with western world, the known allies of the state of Israel, taking a very strong view on the developments and weighing in, it’s before long that the new government in Israel would exert pressure on NSO to spill the beans. That would be an embarrassment that is best avoided.
Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of N4M Media.