Time to scrutinise public finances over security

Time to scrutinise public finances over security

India does not know if money is being spent for prudent security concerns or to snoop on its citizens to benefit the ruling dispensation

Representative image. Credit: AFP Photo

The Pegasus spyware, designed by an Israeli company, NSO, is in the news after revelations that it was used to hack the phones of over 1,000 Indians, including opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, journalists, Buddhist monks and politicians. One of my Sangh Parivar contacts, usual to his style of defending the central government, told me, "This is nothing new. All governments have been doing this in the past."

Is what he said true? Not really. I recall an incident that happened to me during my stint as the deputy mayor of Shimla from 2012 to 17. The Inspector-General of Himachal Police (Law and Order) called me one day and said, "You better be careful. We have put your phones under surveillance." He meant both the mayor and my phones were under surveillance as the two of us belonged to the CPI (M). The government in the state was that of the political party that is our ideological opponent.

He informed me because of the strong bond that both of us had, and he wanted to alert me of the designs of the state government. I asked him what should I do and should I complain? He said no, but abuse the government as much as you can, and that will be sufficient for them to stop listening to your conversations.

The point that my Sangh Parivar friend has not understood, and what I wish to highlight here is this. There is a big difference between surveillance and what is happening now with the Pegasus infiltration. What is happening now is hacking. Importantly, it is being done to serve a party's interests and not, as portrayed, in national security interests.

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At a protest meeting held at the Press Club of India on July 22, one of the speakers pointed out that it is like corporatisation of the spying business. The corporate company doing this task can even compromise the security of the nation. They said that some journalists must knock at the court's doors as this entire exercise is illegal.

We now know that the national security advisor had visited Israel before the prime minister's visit in March 2017. Inferences are being drawn that the budget for the national security council secretariat was enhanced to Rs 333 crore in 2017-18 from Rs 33 crore the previous year. The Congress and CPI(M) have asked, "Was this hike related to purchasing Israeli spyware?"

Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower, warned about these malware developers and how they are connected to profit-making enterprises. He said: "An industry that should not exist...If you don't do anything to stop the sale of this technology, it's not just going to be 50,000 targets. It's going to be 50 million targets, and it's going to happen much more quickly than any of us expect." A global moratorium and that too immediately to be adopted was the cry. Its been four years since 2017 when Snowden pulled the rug off the US NSA, but the cyber malware and attacks continue to haunt not just India but the world.

Two issues come to the fore. The first is the budgetary spending on the security council, as this is hardly screened either by the public accounts committee or supervised by Parliament. The second pertains to the response of the government in the entire episode.

In his address to the Himachal Pradesh Assembly in Shimla to celebrate its golden jubilee, Pranab Mukherjee had said not a penny in the country can be spent without the legislature's consent. Hence, the elected legislature must be cautious while determining that. The Constitution gives this power to spend, and the legislature has to do it judiciously, he said while referring to the role of the states' public accounts' committees. 

Read | Amnesty has not ‘backtracked’ on the Pegasus list; media, BJP make false claims

However, there is one grey area in the guise of security that escapes public scrutiny in India. It is high time we discuss this. In many of the developed nations, parliamentary supervision vets spending on security concerns. Take, for example, in the US and UK, where these committees are reasonably democratic. 

But in India, as pointed out earlier, the spending on security concerns evades proper scrutiny. The country does not know if money is being spent by the state for prudent security concerns or to snoop on its citizens to benefit the ruling dispensation.

The second issue is that of an inquiry into the episode. France has probed the snooping of its former prime minister, Édouard Philippe. In India, where there are accusations that the malware compromised opposition leader Rahul Gandhi's phone and many others, the Indian government is in complete denial mode. 

The government must explicitly state that it has not bought the software, and it did not allow a private company to do this snooping exercise. In that case, a charge of treason should be slapped on the company. But the NSO group has categorically stated that its clients are governments. Else, the government must admit this was done at its behest. If that be the case, it should tender an apology to the nation and its people.

However, what the central government is doing is precisely the inverse. It has started raiding the offices of the press and intimidating them with dire consequences.

It is a scary and challenging situation where the government that had uttered such proverbial phrases as "minimum government maximum governance" faces allegations of exhibiting the worst form of snooping governance.

(The writer is a former deputy mayor of Shimla.)

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