Report links Pegasus to Cong-JDS govt collapse in 2019
Phone numbers linked to a former Karnataka deputy chief minister and associates of two former CMs were potentially targeted for surveillance using Israeli spyware in 2019, an investigative consortium reported on Tuesday, prompting the Congress to blame the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the collapse of the state government at the time.
Online news portal, The Wire, 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 for hacking by Pegasus software, manufactured by Israeli firm NSO group.
At the time, a Congress- Janata Dal (Secular) government was fighting for survival. It collapsed in July that year after 17 legislators resigned, sparking a protracted political tussle that even reached the Supreme Court.
The numbers were part of a global database accessed by the French non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with a 17-member media consortium, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and The Wire. Previous reports said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa and two sitting Union ministers were on the list of potential targets, as were 38 Indian journalists, including three current Hindustan Times staffers and one from sister publication Mint.
To be sure, as the methodology of the investigation explains, the presence of a number does not indicate the individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest. In the absence of digital forensics of specific devices, it is not possible to conclusively establish that the phones linked to these numbers were hacked. The Union government and the BJP have denied any involvement.
“Every time we believe the BJP-led Union government cannot go any lower, fresh proof arrives to show they can & will stoop to the lowest. Pegasus snoopgate shows that BJP will do everything, including partnering with foreign powers, to gain power and topple secular governments,” tweeted Parameshwara, who confirmed to The Wire that he was using the number in question in 2019.
The outlet said the mobile phone number of Kumaraswamy’s personal secretary Satish and Siddaramaiah’s personal secretary Venkatesh were found in the list.
Siddaramaiah on Tuesday said that he didn’t have a personal phone, and was using his Satish’s phone for all communications at the time. The list also had the number of a policeman, Manjunath Muddegowda, who served as a security officer for former PM and JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda.
“This is a crime committed by the government of India. It has to be raised in both houses and there should be an inquiry,” said Siddaramaiah.
Kumaraswamy played down the controversy. “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,” he said.
In 2019, the BJP had accused Kumaraswamy-led government of tapping phones of opposition members and members of his government. The probe was later handed over to CBI by the BJP government, however, Kumaraswamy has not been named in the probe so far.
“Several governments have misused their office, not just the BJP but even the Congress has done this before,” Kumaraswamy added.
The Congress alleged that the politicians were targeted to topple the party’s coalition 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, the party general secretary in-charge of Karnataka in 2019.
Senior BJP leader and deputy chief minister CN Ashwath Narayana said that allegations made by Congress and other organisations were unfounded and outrageous. “When the Congress alliance came to power in 2013, the UPA government was monitoring about 9,000 phones every month and over 500 email accounts,” he said.
He added that witness or evidence has been provided to substantiate the claims made against the government. “We are ready to discuss the matter, provided evidence to back the claims are provided,” he added.
After the 2018 assembly elections, the Congress and JDS joined hands to keep out the largest party, the BJP. The government ran for roughly a year but ran into turbulence in July 2019, when 17 legislators from the two parties abruptly quit. The speaker refused to accept their resignations and a legal tussle over the rebels reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the Speaker’s decision to disqualify these MLAs. However, the court struck down the portion of the order of then Speaker by which the legislators were disqualified till the end of the 15th Karnataka Assembly. On July 22, 2019, Kumaraswamy lost a trust vote in the assembly, paving the way for the current chief minister, BS Yediyurappa of the BJP, to take over.