Rahul Gandhi is helming the protests against the BJP government in India over the Pegasus phone-hacking scandal, with the country’s opposition forcing repeated adjournments of the monsoon session of Parliament Image Credit: PTI

There’s a view within and without the Congress party that the Pegasus snooping scandal has no public resonance in India, and therefore the Congress party must not expend much energy on it.

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has gone on record to say he fears it could be a repeat of the Rafale mistake. Before the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi made alleged corruption in Rafale fighter jet purchased a top election issue. It bombed.

The Congress party’s only other campaign, one promising minimum basic income, was launched at the fag end of the campaign period. It was too little, too late.

To see this debate in a larger perspective, we must ask how many voters voted against the Congress-led UPA-2 coalition government in 2014 because of allegations of corruption in telecom spectrum allocation? Have you met any voter who said he voted Congress out because he was upset about allegations of corruption around the Indian space programme (the “Antariksh scam”).

Not everything directly fetched votes. But hey, it’s not election time at the moment. General elections are 3 years away.

A battle of ideas

Just imagine if Narendra Modi had been the main opposition leader, and it had come out that a Congress-led government had been doing surveillance on him with deep phone hacking, using Israeli spyware meant for national security. How would Modi had responded? Would Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party leave it at a press conference just because voters don’t care about surveillance? Would he have ignored it just because establishment journalists in Delhi said surveillance of opposition leaders has always been around? What’s new?

Historian Garry Wells argued that American society revolves around four kinds of contest: the economic, the political, the moral and intellectual. One has to win or appear to win at all these planes. I borrow this framework from a chapter on Donald Trump in Tim Wu’s book “The Attention Merchants”.

If you look at right-wing discourse from Modi to Trump, it always tries to win on all these four planes. One way it does so is by claiming victimhood, asserting moral superiority and turning it into an intellectual discourse that legitimises their political and economic worldview. This process is needed for anyone who wants to gain power, not just the right-wing.

While being accused of authoritarianism, the BJP asserts it was a victim of authoritarianism when the Indira Gandhi regime had right-wing leaders jailed during the Emergency in 1975. Does this get them votes? No. It gets them something much bigger: moral legitimacy.

Winning the moral argument over Pegasus, for example could create a broad consensus that we need to reform our surveillance laws. It could help get favourable judgements in the Supreme Court. Remember how UPA-2 was delegitimised by institutions other than the electronic voting machine. Endless litigation in the Supreme Court was part of that.

One battle at a time

If the Congress and the larger opposition doesn’t make noise over the Pegasus snooping scandal, what will the public think? People will be right to see it as moral weakness. The BJP government is accused of invading your privacy and you don’t even protest? Surely that can only be a sign of weakness.

And we have seen over the past few years that perception of strength and weakness has become a greater factor influencing the public mind than perhaps anything else. With the assertion of brute power, the BJP creates a broad perception of invincibility and inevitability.

To fight this assertion of brute power, one has to fight the idea that might is right. And to do that, one has to be David against Goliath, embrace victimhood when one is being victimised, and channel it into an energy to defeat Goliath despite all its strength.

The recent incredible victory of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, despite all the might of the BJP, did not come without her taking up issues that don’t directly get votes but help win intellectual arguments over political legitimacy.

One of the risks the BJP faces is to be painted as being ‘undemocratic’. You might think voters don’t care about hoary ideals of democracy as long as the government can help them put bread on the table. But what happens if the government can no longer help put bread on the table?

If and when the opposition succeeds in winning national elections, it will have to be through economic issues. The mistake Rahul Gandhi made in the Rafale campaign was not that he started it but that he didn’t know when to end it. He dragged it on and on into election season.

Perhaps it was not his fault: it has been widely reported. He was also misled by his party’s data analyst Praveen Chakravarty who reportedly insisted his surveys were showing voters saw Rafale as a major issue.

The day when the Indian voter turns against the BJP, Rafale and Pegasus will also be talked about. Like “2G” scam and “Coalgate” scam in UPA-2, they will help articulate a broader sense of anti-incumbency.

Rahul Gandhi only has to remember not to to get stuck at Pegasus like he did with Rafale. The right time to end a campaign is when you have take it to a peak. That’s when you start the next campaign.