Pegasus: From Opposition’s Jackpot to BJP’s ‘National Security’ Trump Card
There was softening on all sides when the Pegasus row came up in the SC and BJP cited ‘national security’ concerns.
It will be unfortunate if the national security argument becomes a handy tool to bury the Pegasus controversy. An entire monsoon session of Parliament went down the tube without debate or discussion on any of the laws that were passed because of daily disruptions by the Opposition as the Modi government stonewalled demands to respond to media reports that the Israeli spyware was used to infiltrate phones of leading personalities in the country.
After so much hullabaloo and an unseemly display of disrespect to the institution that should serve as the hallmark of our democracy, surely we deserve answers to questions that are swirling in the public domain.
Sadly, the Pegasus affair may prove to be a passing storm, at least till the next round of revelations, because no one, not even the Opposition, dares to breach the national security ‘Lakshman Rekha’.
Softening on All Sides
This was evident from the mood that manifested itself when the Pegasus issue came up in the Supreme Court, which is hearing a slew of petitions demanding, among other things, a court-monitored probe to determine whether or not the Modi government bought and used the Israeli-manufactured spyware.
When the government declined to go public with its answers citing national security considerations, there was perceptible softening on all sides. Not only did the apex court reassure the government that it would keep these concerns in mind, the counsel for the petitioners also rushed to say that they were equally mindful about not compromising national security.
Although the matter is not over and the Supreme Court has issued notices to the government, it would seem that for the time being, the sting has gone out of the Pegasus affair.
The Modi government has offered to set up an inquiry committee of experts who will conduct an in-camera probe, the results of which will be presented to the Supreme Court under “sealed cover’’. This is what happened when the Rafale aircraft purchase controversy reached the apex court. The government’s response was handed over to the Supreme Court in a sealed envelope. The contents were never made public.
We will know in due course whether the present Supreme Court will go down the same road on the Pegasus controversy. However, it would seem that the national security argument leaves little room to push the government for full disclosure.
Pegasus Was Also Losing Traction
What is significant is that the Opposition, too, seems inclined to put the issue on the back burner at this point. The din over Pegasus through most of the monsoon session deflected public attention from a shift in the Opposition’s strategy in the penultimate days before Parliament was abruptly adjourned.
After blocking Parliament on Pegasus for most of the session, the Opposition switched its focus to the new farm laws at the end. For two days, there was complete chaos in the Rajya Sabha as Opposition MPs jumped up and down on tables and shouted slogans. Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu was reduced to tears watching the pandemonium around him.
It seems that at the last meeting Opposition parliamentary leaders had in Congress MP Mallikarjuna Kharge’s room, several felt that Pegasus was not getting them enough traction to make it an election issue in next year’s Assembly elections. Some pointed out that the matter was in the Supreme Court and political parties should leave it to the wisdom of the Court to decide on the shape and form of an inquiry.
It was decided that the controversial farm laws were a bigger issue with people, particularly in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, where polls are due early next year. And so the decision to change focus.
Govt Finds a Perfect Cover
Political parties tend to be ephemeral in their choice of issues. The mood of the moment determines their decisions. But having stonewalled the entire monsoon session over Pegasus, the Opposition has left key questions hanging in the air.
A major issue of concern is whether Pegasus can be a legitimate tool for interception under Indian laws. The government has the authority to intercept phone calls to track suspected terrorists, criminals and others engaged in activities that are considered to be a threat to national security.
However, Pegasus is much more than a tool of interception. It is spyware that allows an agency to infiltrate a phone, get access to all information on the phone, including bank account details, passwords, etc., and then continuously monitor all activities. Pegasus can even be used to introduce malware into a phone and all other electronic devices synced to the phone.
This goes beyond the narrow scope of interception which is permissible under law.
The ball is now in the Supreme Court to decide how far it wants to go and how rigorously it wants to examine the laws under which the government can intercept phone calls. The national security argument may provide a perfect cover to let sleeping dogs lie.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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