By Arun Srivastava
The Pegasus expose has brought a very significant political issue in the public domain for painstaking discourse that if all the democratic institutions had not been crushed and allowed to perform their democratic roles in the defined constitutional manner and the bureaucracy had not been inactivated, should Narendra Modi had won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
After three years of the 2019 election this issue has been shaken out of the Himalayan caves by the expose of the report prepared by Pegasus, at the directives of the Israel’s secret agency, NSO. An insight into the expose makes it explicit that every institution was made to compromise and crinkle, whether it was election commission, or the Supreme Court the body which is the last destination to get justice, or the media.
These bodies were placed under surveillance. It is worth mentioning that in those days Ashok Lavasha was the third EC. During the campaigning Modi had called upon the first time voters, the youths, to vote to register their protest against killing of security personnel in Pulwama. Modi was criticised for this call. While two other ECs supported him, Lavasha disagreed. In fact his disagreement cost his family members dear. They were hounded by the ED, IT and other agencies. Incidentally Pegasus was also spying on Lavasha.
The Pegasus even spied on the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and his eight close aides including Alankar Sawai. Gandhi had been consistently posing electoral challenge to him. It is worth recalling that at one stage Rahul was getting the attention and support of the people. Pegasus even spied on election strategist Prashant Kishor.
This was the time when many important political and defence issues like Tin Talak, CAA, 370 were dominating the national scenario. Rafale deal was a highly debated issue. The journalists who were chasing these stories including appointment of Jay Shah, son ofBJP leader Amit Shah as the secretary of the BCCI and Nikhil Merchant were also on the list.
In fact the journalists who are known for raising dissenting voices were targeted. They include Wire’s founder-editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, diplomatic editor Devirupa Mitra, Wire journalist Rohini Singh, columnist Prem Shankar Jha, and journalist Swati Chaturvedi. The list also includes former editor of Economics and Political Weekly Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.
It is quite interesting to watch that the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, who has been holding the brief and defending the Modi government on the floor of Lok Sabha on the opening day of Monsoon session, was one of the two ministers under surveillance. The other minister is Prahalad Singh. Though Ashwini in his reply described the story “sensational”, and an attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well established institutions”, he has no answer to the clarification of Pegasus that it sold the equipment to the countries.
India was one of the countries which had bought the services. Like him the former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad too had also denied the complicity of the Modi government. In fact the services and equipment were used between 2017 and 2019. During those years Ranjan Gogoi was the Chief Justice of India and he had given verdict in the matter of Ram Mandir, 370, NRC and many other important issues. Incidentally all his orders were to the likes of Modi.
The investigation by the Guardian, the Wire and 15 other media organisations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. It admits to sell equipment only to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies in 40 countries, and also claims that it rigorously vets its customers’ human rights records before allowing them to use its spy tools.
The fact of the matter is human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO In India never in the past any operation of this nature and character was carried out by any government. Even a person like Indira Gandhi had relied on the IB for the feedback and actions.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked list and shared access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project, a reporting consortium. The consortium’s analysis of the leaked data identified at least 10 governments who are NSO’s customers and were entering numbers into a system: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Wire reported that forensic tests conducted, as part of the media investigation project, on a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
Pegasus had surfaced in the Indian news media in 2019 when it was found that activists and lawyers, who represented those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, were among those who were targets of ‘state-of-the-art-surveillance’ by operators using Pegasus. Following this, WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm, for allegedly sending malware that exploited its platform in order to conduct this surveillance.
Such was the apparent interest in Gandhi that the numbers of five of his social friends and acquaintances were also placed on the list of potential targets. None of the five plays any role in politics or public affairs, the report said. Gandhi’s numbers, which he has since given up, are part of a large database of leaked numbers believed to be drawn up by NSO Group clients and accessed by the French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with 16 news organisations, including The Wire, The Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and Haaretz.
Gandhi’s phones are not among those examined as he no longer has the handsets he used at the time that his numbers appear to have been selected for targeting – from mid-2018 to mid-2019. Nevertheless the Wire said that in the absence of forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was deployed against Gandhi. At the same time, the presence of at least nine numbers linked to his circle – one of the larger clusters around a person of interest that the Pegasus Project has detected – suggests that his presence in the leaked database is not happenstance.
Apart from Gandhi’s personal phones, the numbers of two close aides, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao, also figure in the leaked database, for mid-2019. Rao is a member of the Congress Working Committee whose current role involves training party cadre while Sawai is attached to Gandhi’s office and typically spends most of his working day with him.
In addition, the mobile number of key strategist Abhishek Banerjee, the powerful Trinamool Congress MP the nephew of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was also selected as a potential target for surveillance by a government client of NSO Group, an investigation of leaked data by The Wire and its media partners on the Pegasus Project has shown.
Meanwhile the Wire claimed that since NSO insists that only “vetted governments” can purchase Pegasus, the targetting of Kishor — who was working as an advisor to Mamata Banerjee — is the first iron-clad piece of evidence that this deadly spyware is being used in India by an as yet unidentified agency to gather political information from rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact the agency has been targeting him to gather information about the government’s political opponents in different parts of the country. The forensic examination of his current phone also shows that what appear to be unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Pegasus attack were made on Kishor’s phone in 2018.
Traces of Pegasus on Kishor’s phone were also detected in 14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including July 13, the day when he met Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi. In fact, a hack of Kishor’s phone occurred even on the date that The Wire met him and AI helped conduct forensic analysis on it.
Apart from the two Union ministers, the phone numbers of Kachroo, his father and his minor son also appear in the leaked data. A corporate executive, Kachroo was chosen by then Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani as her officer on special duty (OSD) in 2014 but he never got formally appointed. BJP sources confide that one of the reasons Irani was shifted to the light weight Textiles Ministry in 2016 was her impulse to unilaterally take decisions without consultation. According to Wire a range of phone numbers belonging to people who are associated with the Sangh parivar are also in the records. (IPA Service)