As a journalist and political correspondent dealing with politicians, policemen, lawyers, NGOs and activists regularly, one gets used to the idea that one's phone might be under surveillance. I have had many friends among these groups who, in the course of a particular conversation, have either stopped speaking abruptly, saying we must meet if I wanted any further information or, on occasion, have been reckless. “I know they are listening in and I don't care," one cop giving me some sensitive information for a particular investigation told me at one time. “This information must get out and I am prepared to face the consequences.”
Although nothing happened to him after that breach of secrecy, when I asked him who might have an interest in spying on him, he said, “My own government, my own bosses. I am a mere investigating officer. There are many in the top echelons who have a lot to hide, or rather afraid of being discovered or exposed.”
It was too complicated to comprehend, so I did not follow up on that conversation. But some years later, while reporting out of Gujarat, I found a strange kind of paranoia among policemen and politicians belonging to the BJP. The Congressmen were more complacent. I could not get the former to talk on the phone. They always wanted to meet before cautiously parting with information that could not be sourced to them. And they would never meet in the obvious places like party offices or their homes. Last minute clarifications while working to a deadline was never possible because they knew their phones were being tapped. I remember one BJP politician, who I developed a rapport with, even giving me a number registered in the name of his driver to call in case of emergencies. To my surprise, he said, “We have to be cautious. Everybody does this in Gujarat.”
Why Congress politicians were laid back about their phones being tapped was, because any campaign they might have been leading against then Chief Minister Narendra Modi and incurring his wrath would actually enhance their standing with their party leaders, unlike those in the BJP - even a whisper of an opposition to Modi could completely destroy their careers. So much like is happening with Modi's ministers at the Centre today; they would not dare to go against the Modi line and all the information you got out of the BJP men was how well Modi was doing and how he was the next best leader in the country after God and Godse.
So when it was revealed that Modi had been stalking and spying on a girl half his age with the aid of his Home Minister and the state's anti-terrorism squad, I was not a whit bit surprised. However, with such frequent snooping on everybody, it was bound to happen that policemen would cover their flanks for indulging in illegal activities and there would be an inevitable leak at some point or the other.
But now with Modi as Prime Minister and his Gujarat Home minister now heading the union Home Ministry, I tend to think they are up to their old tricks again and using more sophisticated spyware to snoop on everyone they see as a threat to their existence.
For, it is simply impossible that the Pegasus software by the Israeli NSO company could have been sold to anyone but a government authority. For the company avowedly sells it only to governments to catch hardcore criminals and terrorists. If so, one needs to investigate who bought the software and what resources were used to pay for it and why the government was not alarmed when What’sApp informed them about it in May this year. Why did it have to be What’sApp and not the government which alerted its citizens to the spying on its citizens? I agree with Rahul Gandhi that seeking answers from What’sApp is a charade and it could well be a case of “ulta chor kotwal ko daante" in order to cover up their own guilt.
The large-scale existence of lawyers and activists from Chhattisgarh on the list of those being spied upon, draws a direct line to those activists who are languishing behind bars without a charge sheet in the Bhima Koregaon case for over two years. This kind of complete denial of human rights, both in the matter of spying and the Bhima Koregaon activists, can come only from those who have concentrated all authority in their hands, captured all institutions, including the judiciary, and are not afraid of the consequences. Or from dictatorships , like Saudi Arabia, which is said to have used the exact same software to snoop on the brutally murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But India is no Saudi Arabia and even if our current rulers might have a brute majority in Parliament, we are still a democracy with an Opposition, however comatose for the past few months. I believe this is now the best opportunity for the combined Opposition to go to town over this breach of privacy of various citizens. It could put the ruling dispensation, which has been freely using central agencies against political rivals in a spot. Any further action against them would clearly be an act of vendetta and if the political parties play it right, this could be the beginning of the restoration of proper democracy in the country.
It is obvious all governments spy periodically on citizens they consider troublesome. But spying on criminals and terrorists is one thing, snooping on legitimate professionals going about their jobs quite sinister.
Meanwhile, instead of bullying WhatsApp, the government could make a start by launching a genuine investigation to ascertain who actually ordered the snooping , though if it came from the top authorities, it is unlikely that anything would come out of the investigation.
Meanwhile, I foresee the whole of India turning into a Gujarat with everybody looking over their shoulders and no one trusting even their own friends and neighbours. It was not a nice feeling travelling in Gujarat in those days. It will be unfortunate if the whole of India were to turn similarly suspicious, fearful, untrustworthy and paranoid.