Much of the business in the lower house (Lok Sabha) of India’s parliament has remained suspended for the third day running following outrage over the revelation that many public leaders, including some who have recently become ministers, were targets of phone tapping. These figures were allegedly subject to surveillance by the government, a charge the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi staunchly denies. In any case, the scandal is unlikely to affect the government’s ability to get legislation passed in parliament.
The technology used, made by an Israeli software firm, can infect smartphones without users’ knowledge and access virtually all their data. Among those whose phones have allegedly been compromised is a woman who charged the former Chief Justice of India with sexual harassment (he has since become a ruling party MP); the current minister for telecoms and information technology; and many opposition leaders, including Congress party MP Rahul Gandhi. In addition, some prominent journalists critical of the government are on the list.
This is not the first time a scandal over phone-tapping has roiled politics in India. In the past, chief ministers had to step down when similar allegations, which could never be proved, were made, testifying to the seriousness with which snooping is viewed. Similar charges were made in 2019, citing the same Israeli firm providing the surveillance software, but nothing came of it. However, as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi ordered his then home minister Amit Shah in 2013 to’keep an eye’ on the daughter of a worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who was single and living alone. The phone interception was discovered by accident, and the state government defended it though local police said they were not informed of it – suggesting it was done covertly. There is no clarity to this day on how many other phones were tapped in the same manner.
While that was a local incident that had no electoral ramifications, the opposition is trying to capitalize on the latest surveillance scandal to disrupt the work of parliament. The controversy comes at a period of intense legislative activity by the government, which has listed 17 new bills for introduction in the session. Three of the bills seek to replace ordinances issued recently, and some of their provisions relate to changes in the procurement of farm commodities that have had farmers in north India up in arms. If the lower house continues to be disrupted, the government will use its strong majority to pass these laws without a parliamentary debate. As a result, the scandal is likely to have a limited effect on the ability of the Modi administration to govern, even if the opposition will continue to use it to score some political points.