Parliament’s Pegasus paralysis: Opposition steps up attack on Modi government; BJP launches counter offensive

Express News Service
NEW DELHI:  A united Opposition on Tuesday decided to continue paralysing Parliament demanding that the Modi government come clean on Israeli spyware Pegasus, following an expose on its possible use to snoop into smartphone conversations of loads of politicians, journalists and other prominent persons.

Leaders of Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha met before Parliament’s proceedings began and agreed to keep up the pressure on the Centre to reveal whether it is part of Peagsus’ clientele, since the NSO group, which owns the spyware, claims it sells it only to vetted governments.

With new revelations suggesting that Pegasus could have been used to topple the JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Karnataka led by H D Kumaraswamy, the Congress felt the matter will resonate in the House.

Congress Chief Whip in Lok Sabha K Suresh said the Opposition will collectively continue to protest inside both Houses from Thursday. Parliament is closed on Wednesday to mark Bakrid.

While the Lok Sabha was adjourned for the second successive day without transacting any business following protests from the Opposition, there was consensus on Rajya Sabha taking up a short discussion on the management of the pandemic.

“Discussion in Rajya Sabha was agreed upon under special circumstances keeping in mind the importance of the matter. Non-participation would have been projected as the Opposition being unsympathetic to people who have suffered due to the pandemic,” said a senior Congress leader.

Also, when the Business Advisory Committee meeting convened by Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu agreed to take up the Covid debate, the expose on the possible destabilisation of the Kumaraswamy government had not been revealed, the leader said.

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“We will not allow Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha to function till the Pegasus issue is discussed in the House. Today is different as Rajya Sabha took up discussion on Covid-19 as the Centre does politics on the issue. Pegasus is the Number 1 issue and it is a national security issue, so no compromise on that,” said Derek O’Brien, Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha floor leader. He said the repeal of three farm laws is also topmost on the party’s priority list, adding they would continue pressing it in Parliament. 

Meanwhile, the BJP Tuesday fielded its senior leaders across the country including state chief ministers to blunt the Opposition attack.

BJP chief ministers including Yogi Adityanath (Uttar Pradesh), Manohar Lal Khattar (Haryana), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (MP), Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam), Vijay Rupani (Gujarat), Jai Ram Thakur (Himachal Pradesh) and Pushkar Singh Dhami (Uttarakhand) were among those who addressed the media to hit back at the Congress and other Opposition parties which have slammed the Modi government over the snooping row.

Senior BJP state leaders, including its state presidents and leaders of opposition, also targeted the Opposition.

The Congress has demanded the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.

Lashing out at the opposition Congress and international organisations for alleging the use of the Pegasus spyware to snoop upon on politicians, journalists and others in India, Shah had Monday said such “obstructers” and “disrupters” were only aiming to humiliate India at the world stage.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Tuesday demanded a ban on human rights organisation Amnesty Internationals activities in India for its role in the Pegasus snooping controversy.

The BJP leader also claimed that the entire controversy was an “international conspiracy by the Left-wing organisations, including Amnesty International,” to defame the Narendra Modi-led Central government.

“Various Left-wing organisations throughout the world, including Amnesty International, are part of the conspiracy theory”, Sarma said.

ALSO READ | Won’t allow Parliament to function till Pegasus issue is discussed: Opposition parties

“It is clear that they want to defame Indias democracy. I demand that activities of Amnesty International be immediately banned within India”, he said.

There were evidences earlier, but with this recent expose, it is now clear that Amnesty can go to any extend to defame Indias democratic fabric, Sarma added.

He criticised newspapers like the Washington Post which does not write about how many people are dying of COVID in which state or how America is controlling it but is more interested in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing.

“I outrightly condemn Amnesty International and caution them not to try this. They will be exposed if they try to disrupt the unity and integrity of our country,” he said.

The chief minister further alleged that a “large international conspiracy” in going on to defame India and damage its democratic set-up and the Pegasus controversy is a part of that larger plot.

“There was a hue and cry over the oxygen issue and when India managed to control the second COVID wave effectively, they moved on to this Pegasus controversy. In between there was the toolkit controversy,” he alleged.

He pointed out the Parliament should have been discussing how the country can be saved from the third wave or how the economy can be saved, but on the eve of the sitting, the Pegasus controversy came to the forefront.

Questioning the timing of making public the Pegasus controversy just a day before Parliament session began, the chief minister said, “whenever India approaches some milestone, international conspiracy both from outside the country and within starts immediately”.

He demanded that the people involved in this conspiracy should be examined and brought before law.

On those accusing the government of snooping on the basis of the Pegasus controversy, Sarma said the people whose name appear on the purported list can get their devices checked through forensic and establish whether their devices were hacked or not.

“Congress Rahul Gandhi could have filed a police complaint and could have got his device checked through forensic experts. But, nothing like it was done,” he said.

Sarma alleged that the track record of the Congress was bad when it comes to phone tapping and snooping and a reply under the RTI Act in 2013 had revealed that 5000 phone numbers and 500 emails were under surveillance during the Congress-led UPA government.

The Congress government in Rajasthan had also faced criticism over phone tapping charges and intruding privacy, he further claimed.

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BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis on Tuesday said Maharashtra government did not avail of the services the private Israeli firm NSO, which licenses its military-grade Pegasus spyware to governments for tracking terrorists and criminals, as long as he was the state chief minister.

Fadnavis, Maharashtra chief minister during 2014-19, and now Opposition leader in the state Assembly, was speaking to reporters following claims that the Pegasus software, that can infect phones without a click, was used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists and business executives in India and many other countries.

“The Maharashtra government did not avail of any services from NSO till I was the chief minister,” Fadnavis said.

“A team of DGIPR (the state government’s publicity department) went to Israel after the (2019 Assembly) elections and before the next government was formed, but that trip was for agriculture development purposes,” the BJP leader said.

The Central government has already rubbished reports on the alleged snooping using Pegasus, Fadnavis said, adding “There is only legal interception, there is no illegal hacking.”

Later in the day, the Maharashtra Congress countered Fadnavis over his claim on a DGIPR team visiting Israel to study agriculture development.

State Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant, whose party is a constituent of the Shiv Sena-led MVA government, claimed the visit in question was about discussing issues related to cyber crime and new ways of social media, among others.

In a series of tweets, Sawant, who is also the state Congress general secretary, published a photo of the itinerary of the DGIPR delegation’s visit to Israel.

Sawant said, “Here is a list of topics for the study of the DGIPR delegation (when Fadnavis was CM). The ‘agriculture’ word is not there. And if it was there, why no officials from agriculture department were sent to Israel?” “For his information, the subject of the tour was to study new trends in Government outreach programs and new ways of utilising social-web media,” he said.

The photo tweeted by Sawant lists nine topics covered under the tour.

They were about utilising web media, educating citizens about cyber crime, use of new media in reaching out to rural and the unreachable population and emerging social media platforms, among others.

The issue of snooping using Pegasus spyware has snowballed into a massive political row in Parliament and outside as various parties demanded a thorough investigation and sacking of Home Minister Amit Shah, while the government maintained it had nothing to do with it.

Fadnavis alluded to the surfacing of the Pegasus controversy as a plan to defame India.

“We noticed that one or two media (outlets) got Chinese funding and carried out propaganda,” he said.

The Pegasus issue is part of a design to derail the ongoing Parliament session, Fadnavis said.

“There are some international forces that are trying to malign the image of the country, especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking the country on the path of progress. He has formed the most inclusive government with ministers from SCs and OBCs. The opposition deliberately brought out this story ahead of the session,” Fadnavis said.

“The Central government has denied having snooped on any person with the help of NSO. One should trust it,” Fadnavis said.

He was responding when asked about claims by a British newspaper that there were traces of hacking in the phone used by political strategist Prashant Kishor, who as Mamata Banerjee’s chief political strategist, is credited with Trinamool Congress’ big win against BJP in this year’s Assembly elections in West Bengal.

Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson Sawant had on Monday asked if the ‘Pegasus scandal’ happened during the tenure of the Fadnavis-led government in the state.

“Was any IPS officer sitting in Mantralaya working on this? With whose permission did the DGIPR officers go to Israel? What training did they receive? Did they come back and report? Is it related to Pegasus? It is surprising and suspicious that such tours have taken place during the election period”, Sawant had said.

“How many times did some officers go to Israel? Were there any government meetings with NSO? What was the correspondence with NSO? It should all come to the fore,” the Congress spokesperson had sought to know.

Congress behaviour irresponsible: Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday criticised the Congress for its ‘irresponsible behaviour’ of disrupting Parliament because of its negative mindset, while urging members of the BJP Parliamentary Party to proactively combat the Opposition.

Kapil Sibal demands SC-monitored probe, white paper in Parliament by government

Former IT minister and senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal Tuesday demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe in the Pegasus snooping matter and a white paper by the government in Parliament explicitly stating whether the Israeli spyware was used by it or not.

Addressing a press conference at his residence here, Sibal also hit back at Home Minister Amit Shah for his remarks on Monday that allegations of surveillance were only aimed to humiliate India at the world stage, saying the “nation is not being maligned, but due to your government’s actions, the government is being maligned”.

Referring to Shah’s ‘Aap Chronology Samajhiye’ comment, the Congress leader said, “We are understanding the chronology. I want to say to Amit Shah ji ‘Aap iski chronology samajhiye (You should understand the chronology of this issue), this was done between 2017-2019.”

“This (the Pegasus issues) is a very serious matter. We want a Supreme Court-monitored probe with a continuing mandamus, like in the Jain Hawala matter,” he said, referring to situations when the Court keeps close watch on certain cases during the probe.

He also demanded that an independent investigation be conducted, saying “we cannot trust the agencies of this government”.

Sibal also said that the proceedings should be in-camera so that everyone gets to know the truth.

Asked about his party demanding a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, he said it could be in addition to the Supreme Court-monitored probe, and added that he was speaking as a concerned citizen of India.

The government should also present a white paper in Parliament and clearly state whether it or its agencies deployed the spyware Pegasus.

“The government should say that we have never used Pegasus but they have not said that. A big problem arises if the government has not done it or its agencies have not done it, then who has done it. NSO (the Israeli technology firm which created the spyware) says it does not sell to anyone except government agencies,” Sibal said.

He said Home Minister Shah should tell Parliament that the government has not used the spyware.

“You say that you are bringing private data protection but you are doing data collection through Pegasus. This is a national security threat for having leaked data to an agency which has nothing to do with India,” he said.

Sibal also asked, “Who prepared the list of telephones to be tapped and why the list was prepared?” If the government or its agencies have intercepted a minister’s phone by introducing malware in his phone then it is a violation of the Official Secrets Act, Sibal said, in an apparent reference to Prahlad Singh Patel’s number listed among the potential targets for hacking through the Israeli spyware.

He also hit out at IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw for his statement in Parliament that similar claims were made in the past regarding the use of Pegasus on Whatsapp and they were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court.

“He also said there was a hearing in the Supreme Court and in that all parties said that no such thing happened. I was the lawyer for WhatsApp, the chief justice asked orally when someone alleged that this was happening through Pegasus ‘if this was happening’ and I said, ‘ask the government’,” narrated Sibal, who was the Minister of Communications and Information Technology between January 2011- May 2014.

The government has not stated till now whether such a thing was happening and the minister says all parties denied it, Sibal asserted, adding this amounts to breach of privilege as it is “false”.

“The statement of IT minister in Parliament is also false,” he alleged.

The government on Monday categorically rejected in Lok Sabha allegations of snooping on politicians, journalists and others using Pegasus software, asserting that illegal surveillance was not possible with checks and balances in the country’s laws, and alleged that attempts were being made to malign Indian democracy.

Trinamool says will continue to disrupt Parliament till government comes clean on snooping charges

The Trinamool Congress Tuesday said it will continue to disrupt Parliament proceedings till the government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance using the Pegasus spyware and discusses it in both Houses.

The party said it will, however, not halt any discussion on the coronavirus situation or aspects related to it.

“This (Pegasus spyware) is a serious issue and the TMC will not compromise on it. We will not let either House run till this government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance. The government has spent millions to hack into phones at a time when the country is dealing with a pandemic,” TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien said.

Opposition members raised uproar in both houses and demanded a thorough probe into the charges of snooping on journalists, politicians, ministers, judges and others using the Israeli spyware.

One of those listed as being allegedly snooped upon is (TMC) national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee.

TMC Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra said, “We are saying on record that the IT minister lied on the floor of the House. We just want the PM, HM and the IT minister to answer if India is a client of NSO (Israeli firm that makes the Pegasus spyware) or not? We have a list of questions for the government and we will not allow Parliament to run unless these questions are answered.”

Moitra then listed some questions — has any department under the government of India purchased Pegasus? Is the spyware being used currently? Which agency has requisitioned this data and where is it being retained? IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had Monday dismissed media reports on the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Indians, saying the allegations levelled just ahead of the Monsoon session of Parliament are aimed at maligning Indian democracy.

In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw said that with several checks and balances being in place, “any sort of illegal surveillance” by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.

On the Union health secretary’s scheduled briefing to all parties on Covid this evening, O’Brien said TMC floor leaders will attend the presentation as it does not want to politicise the issue.

The Congress has announced that it will boycott the presentation.

(With PTI Inputs)