Pegasus allegations: Phone tapping claims not new to K’taka politics
A political row may have erupted in the state after the Congress on Tuesday accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre of snooping into phones of leaders in the Congress-JD(S) coalition government in 2019 which resulted in the toppling of the government, but snooping in Karnataka politics is not new.
The accusations were made after, an online news portal, The Wire, on Tuesday reported that phone numbers of former Congress deputy CM G Parameshwara, and personal secretaries of former CMs HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were selected in 2019 as possible targets of Pegasus spyware, manufactured by Israeli firm NSO group.
“In latest revelations, it is categorically substantiated that the snooping (use of Pegasus software) has been used to topple a democratically elected government. The timing of the snooping indicates that their main intention (of using the software) was to topple the government. At the point of time itself we had complained that our phones were under surveillance,” said KC Venugopal, who was the General Secretary of AICC in-charge of Karnataka during 2019.
The BJP denied these allegations. Karnataka home minister Basvaraj Bommai said that the allegations were part of an international conspiracy to defame India.
However, phone tapping is not new in Karnataka’s politics. The CBI is currently probing into the alleged illegal tapping of phones of politicians, their aides, bureaucrats and other officials during the tenure of former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy.
These phone tapping allegations had come to light when three audiotapes of conversations between Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao and someone called Faraz was released to the media in November 2019. It is alleged that these conversations were released by ADGP Alok Kumar, who was replaced by Rao as the police commissioner.
A preliminary investigation by the Central Crime Branch (CCB) found that more than 185 persons, including senior MLAs, aides of politicians and top bureaucrats were under surveillance. On 30 August 2019, this case was handed over to the CBI.
Playing down the allegations of using Pegasus spyware, Kumaraswamy on Tuesday while speaking to the media said, “ “Even the Income Tax department taps the phones of important people. So, I am not very worried about all this. This is not a new thing.”
“I have not done any wrong activities or compromised the security of either the state or the country. It is not required for us to take all this seriously. Several governments have misused their office, not just the BJP but even the Congress has done this before. This has been done for at least 15-20 years now,” Kumaraswamy had said.
The investigation has not reached a conclusion so far. In January, this year, the Congress party had accused the BJP government of covering up a CBI report on alleged illegal phone tapping. Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson M Lakshman on January 10 had said that the agency is ready with a detailed report and has approached the state government to give its consent to file a chargesheet, but the government has kept it pending for over a month.
The CBI didn’t respond to emails sent by the Hindustan Times on the status of the investigation.
In 2017, even Congress was accused of tapping the phone of the opposition leaders. Leaders of the Congress and the BJP in Karnataka have been engaged in a war of words over allegations of phone tapping. While BJP leaders have alleged that the Congress-led state government has been listening to their phone conversations, the Congress has levelled the same allegations on the ruling party at the Centre.
While the political blame game has sparked a public debate, neither political party has provided any evidence to support their claims. Neither have they approached any authority, including the courts, demanding a probe.
Even though these phone tapping cases have not made much political impact, for Ramakrishna Hedge, who was chief minister of the state between 1983 to 1988, phone tapping accusations cost him the chief minister’s post.
In 1988, Hegde was heading the Janata Party government while Veerappa Moily was in the opposition. The Janata Party made allegations against Moily, claiming he had approached some Janata Party MLAs to join them. It was later revealed that this discovery was made based on phone tapping authorized by Hegde.
The Congress party took up this issue and Subramanian Swamy, who was with the Janata Party, and later defected, accused Hedge of illegal phone tapping of 51 politicians in Karnataka.
Even though Hegde denied the allegations, the issue came up in Parliament, with Union minister of communications Bir Bahadur Singh telling the house that indeed phones were tapped in Karnataka and provided evidence for the same. Following this, on August 10, 1988, Hegde tendered his resignation and was succeeded by his party colleague SR Bommai.