London/New Delhi: Indian democracy is under attack and several politicians, including himself, are under surveillance, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi alleged during a lecture at Cambridge university, drawing sharp reactions from the BJP that accused him of maligning the country's image on foreign soil after facing successive electoral setbacks.
Gandhi, who is a Visiting Fellow of the Cambridge Judge Business School, made the comments during a lecture 'Learning to Listen in the 21st Century' on Tuesday evening, a video recording of which was posted on Twitter by Congress leader Sam Pitroda, ex-adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Referring to the controversial Pegasus snooping issue, Gandhi alleged that the Israeli spyware was installed on the phones of a large number of politicians, including him.
"I, myself, had Pegasus on my phone. A large number of politicians have Pegasus on their phones. I've been called by intelligence officers who say please be careful what you say on the phone because we are sort of recording this stuff. So, this is a constant pressure that we feel," the 52-year-old former Congress chief claimed.
The former Congress president listed five key aspects of the alleged attack on Indian democracy --Capture and control of media and judiciary; surveillance and intimidation; coercion by federal law enforcement agencies; attacks on minorities, Dalits and tribals; and shutting down of dissent.
"Everybody knows and it's in the news a lot that Indian democracy is under pressure and under attack…The institutional framework which is required for a democracy: Parliament, a free press, the judiciary and just the idea of mobilisation, these are all getting constrained. We are facing an attack on the basic structure of Indian democracy," he said.
Hitting back on Gandhi, Union Minister Anurag Thakur wondered what prevented Gandhi and other Congress leaders from submitting their phones to a Supreme Court-appointed technical committee that probed the Pegasus snooping issue.
"We can understand his hatred towards the Prime Minister, but the conspiracy to malign the country on foreign soil with the help of foreign friends raises questions on the agenda of the Congress," Thakur, the Information and Broadcasting minister, told reporters in Delhi.
Thakur said Gandhi was aware of the electoral rout the Congress was facing in the assembly elections and had resorted to levelling allegations from foreign soil.
"Once again, the Congress lost in the elections but their bankruptcy was evident when they lost no opportunity to malign India from foreign soil," Thakur said.
Thakur said Gandhi should have at least listened to what Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had to say about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"Today, the kind of respect that Modiji has in the entire world and the recognition that India has gained under the leadership of Modiji … If no one, Rahul Gandhi should have at least listened to Italy's Prime Minister and its leaders,” he added.
BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said,"after the spectacular no show of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, where Congress has been consigned to irrelevance in three states with a minority & tribal population, you have the immature dynast making the same ramblings & rantings that have been rejected by courts & court of public opinion!".
Rahul Gandhi, who gave a presentation, noted that in the Constitution, India is described as a Union of States and that Union requires negotiation and conversation. He also showed slides on the screen of him being confronted by police officers outside Parliament in New Delhi.
"It is that negotiation that is coming under attack and threat... you would have also heard about the attack on the minorities and press," he said, adding that protecting and defending Indian democracy is more than just about India but about defending the "democratic structure and democratic system on the planet".
"I have got a number of criminal liable cases for things that should under no circumstances be criminal liable cases, but that's the story and that's what we are trying to defend.
"As the Opposition, it is very difficult to communicate with people when you have this type of an assault on the media, on the democratic architecture," he said, explaining the motivation behind his Bharat Jodo Yatra – a 4,081 km walk through 14 Indian states from September 2022 to January 2023 to draw attention to "prejudice, unemployment and growing inequality in India".
Gandhi recalled his student days at the university, which he said had given him a lot "in terms of knowledge and understanding”.
The second strand of his lecture focussed on the "two divergent perspectives” of the US and China since World War II and the final strand was around the "Imperative for a Global Conversation", as he knitted the different strands together in a call for a new type of receptiveness to various viewpoints.
Gandhi is on a week-long tour of the UK and is scheduled to hold some closed-door sessions on Big Data and Democracy and India-China relations at Cambridge University.
Later in the week, he will interact with representatives of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC) UK chapter and also address an "Indian Diaspora Conference" planned over the weekend in London.