The Standing Committee on Information Technology was on Wednesday unable to discuss the allegations against the Centre for using the Pegasus software to spy on citizens as Bharatiya Janata Party MPs reportedly refused to participate in the talks, according to the Hindustan Times.
The panel, comprising 21 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, reportedly needs the attendance of around nine to 10 members to take up matters for discussion. The committee is led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
Out of the 31 members in the panel, 15 are from the BJP, according to The Print.
The saffron party’s politicians had walked out of the meeting on Tuesday as well. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had then said that it was not correct to participate in the meeting when Parliament was in session.
Tharoor said he was disappointed by the development, PTI reported. “I am very disappointed that some elements on some issues have chosen to reduce this committee to some sort of a ping pong match, which I don’t believe is in the spirit of Parliament or parliamentary committee,” he said.
Tharoor noted that earlier he was the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on external affairs for five years, where its members worked in an extremely amicable and cooperative spirit.
The Monsoon Session of Parliament has had several disruptions over the past week as the Union government and the Opposition have reached an impasse over discussion into allegations that the Pegasus spyware was used to spy on politicians, journalists and activists in India. The government has refused to hold discussions on the matter, while the Opposition has insisted on it.
“BJP members come to the IT Committee and refuse to sign the attendance register to deny a quorum,” tweeted Congress MP Karti Chidambaram, who is a member of the panel. “Further all the witnesses called from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Ministry of Home Affairs wrote in excuses and did not appear as called to testify. It is very clear that Pegasus is a no go area for this government.”
Chidambaram alleged that the BJP wanted to “expunge Pegasus” from any debate, scrutiny or enquiry. “What are they so afraid of?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Dubey on Wednesday moved a privilege motion that sought Tharoor’s removal as the head of the committee. The BJP leader invoked the rule 222 of “Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha”, which mandates that a “member may, with the consent of the Speaker, raise a question involving a breach of privilege either of a member or of the House or of a Committee”.
“It is shocking that [the] Opposition here does not want Parliament to function,” Dubey told the Hindustan Times. “However, they want the same issues to be discussed in the committee [meetings] which the government is ready to discuss in Parliament.”
He also claimed that 17 of the 30 members of the committee have written to the Speaker stating that they no longer trust Congress leaders.
Responding to the privilege motion, Tharoor told reporters that it has no validity as no constituted procedure was followed in introducing the motion. The motion requires the Speaker to take the permission of the House before it can be introduced.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday said Opposition leaders needed answers related to the controversy about the use of the Pegasus spyware. This came after a meeting of at least 10 Opposition parties in Delhi earlier that stategised on how they would question the Centre in Parliament.
Gandhi reportedly said during the meeting that the Centre was defaming the Opposition with the claim that the parties were not allowing Parliament proceedings to occur.
The Pegasus spyware is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company says that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals.
On Sunday, a leaked list of 50,000 potential targets of the spyware, “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens” was released. The list was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared it with 17 news organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.
The list includes phone numbers used by at least 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.
Responding to allegations of snooping, Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list, said that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. The government, however, has not yet categorically denied using the Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens.