The Andhra Pradesh Assembly on Monday passed a resolution to form a panel to investigate if the previous Telugu Desam Party government procured and used Israeli spyware Pegasus, the Hindustan Times reported.
Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party MLAs said they took note of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s claim on March 17 that the Andhra Pradesh government led by Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu had acquired the spyware, according to The Indian Express.
Banerjee had also claimed that Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group attempted to sell the spyware to her for Rs 25 crore, but she turned down the offer.
On Monday, Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister B Rajendranath said that it was quite possible that the Telugu Desam Party government may have used Pegasus. Naidu’s party was last in power between 2014 and 2019.
“A senior leader and CM like Mamata Banerjee will not say it just like that,” Rajendranath said.
He said that his party cannot present any evidence as such work is done illegally and kept under wraps.
“We are assuming that not only political leaders but voters of all sections were under surveillance during Naidu’s regime,” he added.
Rajendranath alleged that in 2017, former state intelligence chief AB Venkateshwara Rao had attempted to acquire a drone surveillance system from Israel through a company that his son owned, according to the Hindustan Times.
“Rao had gone to Israel twice those days and the then TDP government had also sanctioned funds for the procurement of [the] spying equipment,” he claimed. “Later, the project was cancelled suddenly.”
Speaker Tammineni Seetharam said that a committee will be set up in a couple of days to investigate the matter.
Meanwhile, Rao dismissed the allegations.
“I can confidently say no government agency had neither procured nor used the Pegasus spyware [till May 2019],” he said. “No phones were tapped. I do not know about the situation after May 2019, when the TDP lost power.”
A day after Banerjee’s allegations, Telugu Desam Party General Secretary and Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh had also claimed that the government had rejected the offer to procure the Pegasus spyware, IANS reported.
Lokesh, who was the minister for information technology in Naidu’s government, said that Banerjee was misinformed on the matter.
“If we had resorted to such things, Jagan Mohan Reddy would not have come to power in 2019,” he remarked.
In July, several media organisations across the world had reported on the use of Pegasus. In India, The Wire had reported that 161 Indians were spied on using Pegasus.
The NSO Group has said that the spyware can only be sold to “vetted governments”.
Among Pegasus’ potential targets were many Indian Opposition leaders, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, The Wire founders Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu and even the former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
More than 40 journalists and activists were also on the list.
Opposition leaders in India had protested vociferously against the alleged illegal surveillance, and pleas were filed in the Supreme Court against the government.
The top court, in turn, had set up a panel to look into the allegations.
The government in August and September had fought off criticism following the media exposés, claiming the reports about Pegasus were “conspiracies”. The government had claimed that the allegations had been brought up to “derail India’s growth” and as revenge for India’s supposedly efficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
On January 28, an investigative report by The New York Times said that India bought Pegasus in 2017 as part of a $2-billion defence package. The military-grade spyware and a “missile system” were the “centrepieces” of the package, the report had claimed.