Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why nobody seems very outraged by the Pegasus story

Journalists seem baffled that you are not baffled. They may have thought that a story that implied the government was snooping on its citizens was going to be extraordinary. Some may even have thought that you are so moral that you would be disgusted in a loud and visible way. But then, you probably don’t even remember that you had first read about Pegasus spyware two years ago. In any case, you have heard the basics again, and you remember that, as of now, an Israeli technological marvel called Pegasus can infiltrate any phone; that many governments are its clients; that the Indian government has been accused of using this software to snoop on politicians and activists, among others; and that New Delhi has neither confirmed nor denied that it is a client of Pegasus.

At the heart of this story is a leaked list of nearly 50,000 individuals across the world who, according to a consortium of activist and news organizations, are of interest to the various clients of Pegasus, including the Indian government. It is not clear how many of them have actually been snooped upon. Forensic analysis has been done on only about 67 phones. Seen this way, the story is more lame than it sounds at first. And there is this mystery over why some significant foes of the government, like Sonia Gandhi or Prashant Bhushan, do not feature in the list revealed so far of “potential targets", while several journalists do. But this is not the reason why you may not have been outraged. The implication of the story is clear: India snoops on Indians who are problematic to the government. Yet, it has not stirred strong disgust and other emotions in you.

Democracy is based on the premise that a government has a vested interest in being ethical because you will punish it otherwise. Journalism is about the threat to a government that if it is unethical, you will get to know, and you will then punish the government. But then, if you have become indifferent to political morality, what is the whole point of democracy and all its angst?

The idea that a government is elected or voted out for moral reasons was always more a myth of storytelling than how society can be observed to work in practice.

Most people are good, but good in a banal way—they do not want bad things to happen to others, but they will be politically stirred only if a bad thing directly affects them.

In 2002, when I was covering the Gujarat riots for a magazine, I thought it was beyond debate even in India that if a political party has a role in violence, and if that can be proven, the party will pay a price. As part of my reportage, I interviewed Praveen Togadia, then among the most influential Hindu nationalists. He said that for every English word criticizing then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in the English media, “We will win 10,000 votes." I am still not sure if he said it in glee, or out of professional envy, but there was no doubt he meant it as a plain truth. He would be proved right, but at that time, it seemed like an extraordinary analysis. The idea that any political party could benefit from an accusation of criminal conduct seemed implausible. Today, it is naive to possess such a frame of mind. And it is not because India has become an immoral place.

Snooping has a certain journalistic significance because most journalists have been trained to accept that ‘Watergate’ is the greatest news story ever told, and it was about snooping. The story exploded at a time when the influence of big news media in America was at its peak. They could provoke the moral indignation of millions, and as a result bring an American president to his knees. In India, the news media could end the career of one of its most popular prime ministers by suggesting that he took kickbacks in an arms deal.

But regular people are far more forgiving, far less sanctimonious, and more self-absorbed than they themselves realize. This quality is able to assert itself more freely today, as the power of the old media has diminished and the fate of the new media is closely tied to how well it is able to corroborate the emotions of people, rather than preach to them.

People rate themselves as flawed, and they have a practical arrangement with the world. They have high standards for politicians they do not like, and a low bar for politicians they love or whom they find useful.

The politician they despise has to be honest, peaceful, efficient, articulate, intelligent, straight and monogamous. A politician they love could have a criminal past and be untrustworthy, but they will find ways to accommodate him or her.

Even in the days before social media, the idea that the revelation of immoral conduct will end a political career was probably an exaggeration created by political theorists, as Donald Trump would later demonstrate. Everything about him was the opposite of an ideal presidential candidate, yet he won and may have won a second term if it were not for his perceived handling of the pandemic.

People gave him a long rope for misconduct that did not affect them, and he was then punished for something that mattered dearly to them—putting their lives at risk. Modi, too, would possibly have paid a price for his handling of the pandemic if elections had fallen in, say, April or May this year. But the Pegasus fiasco will not bother him much.

Indians do no wish to be spied upon, but their government spying on public figures and others is somehow not as stirring as other things that involve no major morality issue—for instance, the rights of stray dogs.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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