Under a collaboration called the Pegasus Project, 17 media organisations from around the world have recently released startling information about the way several governments have allegedly used spyware made by Israeli firm NSO to snoop on perceived adversaries.

Pegasus spyware, classified as a weapon to be used against criminals and terrorists, was allegedly used in India to spy on opposition politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, among others. While the Indian government has denied the charges, all the evidence points to the executive branch running amok.

The unravelling of Indian democracy offers important lessons for the United States, especially with recent revelations regarding former President Donald Trump’s final days in office and the reluctance of his Republican Party in the legislature to hold him accountable.

The destruction of Indian democratic institutions under Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014 is well documented. If these new allegations are left unaddressed, which is the most likely outcome, their chilling effect on society will ensure India’s swift decline into a sham democracy like Russia.

If true, the implications of such surveillance are not limited to political, bureaucratic, journalistic, or judicial opponents of the current government. They will affect the economic climate, open-minded academic inquiry, and spirited debates among students and civil society, which are all essential for a thriving democracy.

‘A conspiracy’

While various Indian ministers and ruling party functionaries have dismissed the controversy as an international conspiracy to tarnish India’s image, they have never answered the simple question: “Did India use Pegasus Software against its citizens?” Both the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and The Guardian of the UK have concluded that India is NSO’s customer. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has tried to portray the timing of the exposé, coming on the eve of Indian Parliament’s monsoon session, as suspicious, but the issues raised are much bigger than the disruption of one Indian parliamentary session.

The allegations include spying against other heads of states, as well as activists and journalists around the globe, making it much larger than an anti-India campaign. The media organisations involved include some of the most respected global names, who are unlikely to put their reputation on the line for an anti-India witch hunt.

Since it is a global scandal, Indian supporters of Modi who care about democracy should be worried about the kind of company the controversy puts India in. Under Modi’s leadership, Indian democracy has already been downgraded by multiple global entities. The list of countries in the Pegasus Project, perhaps with the exception of Mexico, which was fighting a brutal drug war, includes authoritarian regimes and non-democratic Arabic kingdoms along with India.

One could argue that the United States indulged in indiscriminate surveillance of its own citizens after 9/11, but majority of the National Security Agency surveillance was related to metadata. After former computer intelligence consultant Edward Snowden’s revelations, several National Security Agency programmes have been either scrapped or brought under stricter oversight of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts.

The National Security Agency might still be keeping tabs on everyone around the world, including American citizens, but it has not led to the kind of egregious human rights violations or cover-ups that India’s purported use of Pegasus indicates.

In India, in addition to a Supreme Court judge’s staffer, an Election Commission official and top two Central Bureau of Investigation officials, the eavesdropping included not only activists and journalists opposing Modi but even his own ministers and industrialists friendly to the government. Like Trump, long-time observers of Modi and his deputy Amit Shah have repeatedly warned about their ruthlessness. They are demonstrating how a democracy can be subverted in broad daylight.

Fortunately for the United States, as former National Security Advisor John Bolton recently noted, Trump does not have the attention span to stage a coup. However, Trump has left guideposts for someone as Machiavellian as Modi to become the American president and weaken it from within, which makes these two phenomena worth comparing.

Exploiting fears

Both the Trump and Modi movements are anchored in xenophobia, a sense of victimhood (white or Hindu) and pseudo-nationalism. Both are alpha-male, populist, and extremely smart communicators who know how to exploit voters’ fears. They have both successfully taken over their respective political parties by sidelining all other party veterans and creating personality cults untethered from the parties’ ideologies.

They never admit mistakes, back down or apologise in public. They have succeeded in casting the media as the villain and themselves as the only saviours in the eyes of their adoring followers. They have effectively used social media to repeatedly spread lies until they become truths for their supporters. Their supporters live in an alternate reality.

The US survived the Trump-era assault on its democracy largely with the help of an independent judiciary, free media, level-playing field for opponents in political fund-raising, deeply entrenched individual liberty with strong privacy laws, and a handful of Republicans who rose to the occasion during vote-counting in 2020 and lived by their oath to the constitution instead of succumbing to Trump’s pressure.

Several Trump enablers have been indicted, and are serving prison time, with the possibility of Trump himself being indicted soon. And yet, barring a few, Republicans find themselves unable to hold him accountable for his actions while in office, offering clues to future authoritarian leaders for creating a personality cult and holding half of the American political universe hostage to his or her whims.

India was not that lucky. With a weak judiciary, lack of adequate privacy protections, compromised media, a skewed political fund-raising landscape due to the anonymous electoral bond scheme, and no awareness of or respect for fundamental rights, Modi has succeeded in compromising all the pillars of Indian democracy in seven short years. While opposing Indian parties have indulged in similar surveillance of adversaries and removal of threats to their power in the past without accountability, barring the Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, India has not seen such a frontal assault on right to privacy and the independence of institutions.

Since Modi’s rivals at the centre are in power in several states and would not willingly give up the ability to use tools like Pegasus on their opponents, any parliamentary investigation and subsequent action are bound to fall well short of the democratic ideals enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The Indian Supreme Court has a chequered past as well, but it has occasionally found the courage during grave constitutional crises to rescue India from an authoritarian executive branch.

Even if the Supreme Court takes suo moto cognizance of the matter and constitutes an independent inquiry, it is unlikely that any of the heads responsible for the snooping scandal will roll. A few low-level bureaucrats will most likely be made scapegoats as their political masters walk away unscathed. Indians should consider it as a win if the Supreme Court lays down stringent legal guidelines for any such future surveillance with harsh penalties for the culprits.

Meanwhile, if it is any consolation for those who had repeatedly warned about the danger Modi poses to Indian democracy, the Pegasus scandal has thoroughly diminished him as a world leader. Along with the disastrous mismanagement of the Indian economy and the pandemic, the snoopgate has also exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of the political project of Modi’s brand of Hindutva, which is built on a muscular form of Hinduism that is more interested in glorifying India’s past achievements than building a forward-looking, tolerant, and open-minded society.

Like Trump, due to the size of Indian economy and its geopolitical importance, Modi will be invited to international forums till he remains in office. After he steps down, beyond his adoring fans at home and abroad, he will command little respect on the world stage. Like Richard Nixon, by the time Modi’s obituary is written, history will note some of his policies that benefited Indians, but his legacy will include plenty of warning signs for those interested in protecting democracies. Americans, consider yourselves warned.

Mauktik Kulkarni is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and a filmmaker. He is the author of A Ghost of Che and Packing Up Without Looking Back.