Pegasus scandal: Is this India’s Watergate moment?

There is an inherent advantage the ruling party in India has in an election: it wields the power of the state.

In the Indian system, this advantage has been beautifully curbed by the incredible amount of power the Election Commission has. An autonomous Constitutional body, the EC just takes over the bureaucracy the moment it declares election dates in a press conference.

The ruling party also had the advantage of state television and radio back in the day, before the explosion of private television. To address this, the Election Commission of India tried to give opposition parties an equal platform by instituting the equal platform rule. All parties were to be given equal campaign time.

These measures show how the leaders and policymakers of yore at least tried to make elections a match between equals. It’s not really a democracy if one side has an unfair advantage.

Over the years, however, things have changed in India. There are many points of contention here, such as the imposition of no limit whatsoever on the amount of money a party can spend in an election. The candidates, however, have strict limits. This has contributed to making our democracy more presidential.

Misuse of official machinery

The use of anticorruption agencies against political opponents has always been around but it has never been more extreme. Precious election campaign time is lost, financial resources blocked and image smeared when anticorruption agencies raid opposition leaders on election eve.

Then there is the media. Much of the media has become more loyal to the BJP than the BJP itself. The craven sycophancy towards government you get to see on most news channels is not entirely voluntary. If authorities perceive you as being anti-establishment, your channel won’t get access to government. And that’s just for starters.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of inequality of political opportunity is unethical surveillance. The Pegasus snooping scandal has brought out what is the absolute worst about our politics today. It has been alleged that the phones of various opposition leaders and critics were hacked into. This is not old school wiretapping.

That’s the greatest possible unfair advantage you can have over your political opponents in a democracy: knowing in advance their every move, every feeling of vulnerability, every asset, all future plans.

We live on our phones these days. The amount of time we spend on our laptops has gone down. There are people who haven’t touched a laptop or desktop in ages, because the smartphone can do almost everything. And Pegasus can reveal everything inside your smartphone, and even outside, by turning it into a recorder.

Of course there is no concrete proof that the Indian authorities used Pegasus against political rivals. Interestingly, the government doesn’t deny buying the software, only insisting that all surveillance has been done legally. If that’s really the case, the laws seem to be rather liberal in permitting the invasion of privacy.

Snooping on political opponents

It is difficult to see anyone except the BJP-led government being interested in deep phone hacking of Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor, Abhishek Banerjee, various leaders in Karnataka, various leftist activists and so on.

Who would be interested in hacking into the phones of journalists or into 11 phone numbers belonging to a woman and her family just because she dared to accuse a sitting Chief Justice of India of sexual harassment?

This is India’s Watergate to the power of 100. Except that Watergate had serious consequences — Nixon had to resign. Most people think there will be no consequences for the BJP government. Pegasus will return for a third season. This in itself shows you how broken our system is.

Elections alone do not a democracy make. There are many countries which hold regular elections and the ruling party keeps winning them all the time, sometimes with over 90% vote share. Real democracy needs elections to be free and fair. Which means they need to be contested on a level playing field.

If the match has to be an equal one, the BJP leaders should also give access to their phones, laptops, documents, research, plans and strategies. What about cameras live streaming internal party conversations to opposition parties?

They shouldn’t forget to add the audio, too.



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