Congress leader and former Union minister P Chidambaram on Sunday demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should make a statement in Parliament about whether India used the Pegasus spyware to allegedly spy on politicians, journalists and activists in the country.
In an interview with PTI, published on Sunday, Chidambaram said the Centre should either call for a joint parliamentary committee inquiry into the allegations that this surveillance operation was carried out by the Union government or request the Supreme Court to appoint a sitting judge to investigate the matter.
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences its software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.
But a leaked list, featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. It became the basis of a global investigation called the Pegasus Project in which 17 media organisations collaborated.
Indian news website The Wire, which is among the participants in the project, reported that at least two mobile phone numbers used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were selected as a potential surveillance target from mid-2018 to mid-2019.
Pegasus allows operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones and cameras from iPhones and Android devices. A successful hacking would have given the Modi government access to private data of Gandhi’s phone before the 2019 General Elections.
Chidambaram, however, on Sunday said he was not sure if one can say that the entire electoral mandate of the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections was vitiated by the allegations of unlawful surveillance. But, it may have helped the Bharatiya Janata Party to win the polls, he added.
The former home minister also raised concerns on whether the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology with a majority of BJP members will fully investigate the allegations. The parliamentary panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
“The parliamentary committee rules are rather strict,” Chidambaram told PTI. “For example they cannot take evidence openly but a JPC can be empowered by Parliament to take evidence in public view, to cross examine witnesses, and to summon documents. So I think a JPC will have far more powers than a parliamentary committee.”
“He [Shah] does not deny that a certain number of telephones in India were hacked using Pegasus software,” Chidambaram said. “So, in fact, rather than what the home minister said, what he did not say is more important.”
The senior Congress leader also sought to know how much money the Modi government paid to buy the spyware.
“These are simple, straightforward questions which the average citizen is asking,” he said. “After all, France has ordered an investigation when it was revealed that President [Emmanuel] Macron’s number was one of the numbers that were hacked. Israel itself has ordered an investigation by its National Security Council.”
Meanwhile, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut also asked who funded the alleged surveillance. He also claimed that this was “no different from the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima”, referring to the bombing by the United States that killed 1,40,000 people in Japan in 1945.
Citing a media report, Raut said that the NSO Group charges Rs 60 crore annually as licence fee for the Pegasus spyware. “Was so much money spent?” he asked, according to PTI. “Who paid for it? Does our country have the capacity to spend so much money on spying?”