Pegasus scandal: With Modi govt failing to come clean, only a SC monitored probe can unearth the truth
It is a matter of huge concern that political and constitutional processes were evidently subverted in the world’s largest democracy by the ruling regime in such a flagrant manner
The sensational revelations by the ‘Pegasus Project’ that a military grade spyware was used to snoop on phones of Union ministers, key political rivals of the ruling dispensation, head of a constitutional body, a SC judge, journalists and activists have created a huge uproar in the country.
An investigation into the targets of Pegasus, a spyware developed and sold by Israel-based NSO Group to “vetted governments” around the world, was initially carried out by Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, and subsequently shared with 17 media outlets around the world including India-based news portal, The Wire. Forbidden Stories was able to access the lists containing thousands of phone numbers that were part of the list of potential targets.
NSO Group says the spyware is sold to foreign governments to pre-empt terror activities, check drug cartels and keep an eye on other illicit activities. It is one of the most sought after intelligence softwares in the world because of its sophisticated nature which lets it intrude even into the safest of devices like the I-Phone and clandestinely extract all sorts of data from the targeted handset. Once infected, the device operates as a surveillance tool without any hindrance from anti-virus software and is also said to leave behind no trail of infection.
The case in India is contrary to the aforesaid purposes as it is alleged to have been deployed to snoop on political figures and constitutional authorities. Indeed, the appearance of some sensitive political targets on the list have raised a gamut of questions: who authorised the snooping; does the Government of India know about its deployment on unsuspecting civilians; is India one of the clients of NSO Group and who in India is associated with it. But the foremost question is whether it was used by the ruling regime to derive electoral mileage, as opposition parties have alleged.
Ashok Lavasa, one of the three Election Commissioners was reportedly a potential target of the spyware. He was overseeing the 2019 general election and had also flagged PM Narendra Modi’s violation of the Model Code of Conduct in the run up to the polls. If he was indeed an intended target, the opposition’s allegation of the government being complicit in compromising democratic processes in India is not far from the truth.
The report that Rahul Gandhi, a leader of India’s principal opposition, and his close political aides were also potential targets of this snooping operation during the 2019 elections give further legitimacy to the argument that Pegasus was deployed for electoral benefits by the government of the day. Rahul Gandhi had, and continues to, challenge PM Narendra Modi on issues of national importance. His no-holds-barred attack on Modi over the Rafale deal had given the government sleepless nights in 2019.
Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a democracy watchdog, has also been named as one of the potential targets.
Notably, most of the Indian journalists on the list have been critical of the government in some or the other manner and some have penned stories that have put the top leadership of the ruling party in the dock.
It appears that the ruling regime blatantly deployed the spyware against any person for political benefits. A woman staffer of the Supreme Court who accused the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment was reportedly a target, along with her immediate family members. Gogoi was, of course, absolved of all charges and was later nominated to Rajya Sabha by the Modi government.
During his tenure as CJI, Gogoi heard many significant cases including the Rafale deal that had cast aspersions on the Modi government just preceding the 2019 general elections.
Another target seems to have been Prashant Kishor, a political strategist who has helped some regional political parties to win elections in their respective states, including the recent West Bengal Assembly poll which the BJP was desperate to win. A forensic examination of his phone is said to have found traces of Pegasus infection which was active as recently as July 14.
Similarly, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee's name also figures on the list of potential snooping targets.
It has also come up that the spyware may have played a role in the toppling of the Congress-JDS government in Karnataka when 17 MLAs from the two parties switched over to the BJP in 2019, leading to the fall of the 13 month-old coalition government in the state.
The Wire reported that the phone numbers of the coalition government’s deputy chief minister G Parameshwara, personal secretaries of the then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and former chief minister Siddaramaiah, and a gunman working with former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda were among the people whose phones were targeted.
The Modi government has refuted all these reports, questioning why the story was broken just before the monsoon session of Parliament. But it has failed to categorically deny the use of Pegasus on Indian soil. Indeed, it appears confident that irrefutable evidence linking it to the scandal is unlikely to emerge.
It is imperative for the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the issue and institute a thorough probe into the whole matter to fix accountability. It is a matter of huge concern that political and constitutional processes were evidently subverted in the world’s largest democracy by the ruling regime in such a flagrant manner.
(Amrish Ranjan Pandey is National Secretary, Indian Youth Congress and In-charge of West Bengal. Nirbhay Dubey is Consulting Editor, The Democratic Mirror)