Truth be told, India finds itself on lists, it should never be on


There’s no other way to say it — India is not in good company. When India appears alongside Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Hungary and Kazakhstan, for purportedly using government might for the wrong reasons, something is terribly wrong.

The latest revelations about Pegasus spyware slithering its way into Indian cellphones are shocking. Hacking is against the law. It seems Rahul Gandhi is nothing short of a national security risk in BJP-ruled India. Same for Ashok Lavasa, the election commissioner.

The use of State power to compromise, crush and intimidate critics has become an international concern, regardless of whether India and Indians take note of this or not. Not caring is a strategy for sure, but is it a good one when your borders are constantly threatened and national power weak?

On Monday, Amit Shah stated that the Pegasus investigation is nothing but a ‘report by disrupters for the obstructers’ designed to ‘humiliate India’ on the world stage. And, Congress apparently has ‘jumped on to this bandwagon’, he added — dismissing the fact that Rahul Gandhi’s phone has also been found hacked just ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

India has begun to cohabit with authoritarian regimes — or so it seems to a lot of its well-wishers. Not since the Emergency has India’s commitment to democracy been questioned this hard. The trend of the country sliding on to lists it should never be on is hard to ignore.

In March 2021, Freedom House, a US-based organisation, downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ because it said political and civil liberties had deteriorated under the Narendra Modi government. Two of India’s shining institutions — the Election Commission and the Supreme Court — are under pressure. Incidentally, before you dismiss it as foreign propaganda, the same report also warned about the ‘parlous state of US democracy’ in light of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The Sweden-based V-Dem Institute has downgraded India from the ‘world’s largest democracy’ to an ‘electoral autocracy’ in this year’s annual report. The latest Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit called India a ‘flawed democracy’ and pushed it down two rungs to the 53rd position. The picture is damning.

Government spokesmen say India doesn’t need ‘sermons’ from ‘self-appointed custodians’ and is not looking for approval. OK then. Listen to India’s own civil society leaders. Using military-grade spyware to hack into phones of opposition leaders, activists and journalists is something democrats don’t do.

Meanwhile, here’s one ‘foreign’ opinion just in case anyone cares. ‘There is growing concern in Washington that if India doesn’t change course, it’s going to be harder to make the differentiation why a partnership with India is of value when trying to deal with an authoritarian China,’ a US official told me in light of the Pegasus scandal.

This is the second Pegasus-related scandal after the 2019 hack of 1,400 phones via WhatsApp, including many Indian academics, activists, journalists and opposition politicians. At the time, former IT and communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refused to give a straight answer to a straight question in Rajya Sabha on whether GoI had bought Pegasus. He blustered on about following standard operating procedure and the need for balancing privacy and security.

This time, too, GoI hasn’t specifically denied using Pegasus except to say that ‘each case of interception, monitoring and decryption is approved by the competent authority…’. The statement insisted India is a ‘robust democracy’ with a culture of open dialogue.

Well, the Modi government has given India’s critics abroad so much ammunition they don’t know where to store it. Yes, many critics have dubious agendas, but it’s hard to argue, sitting outside the ‘charmed circle’, that Indian democracy is ‘robust’ when political leaders are imprisoned for long periods, rights activists are deemed ‘traitors’ even before trial, and journalists are surveilled for simply doing their job.

Views expressed are author’s own


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