IT Minister rejects allegations linked to Pegasus snooping row; BJP, Cong spar

·6-min read

New Delhi, Jul 19 (PTI) As political heat rises over allegations linked to the Pegasus snooping row, the Centre on Monday categorically rejected them saying attempts were being made to 'malign' Indian democracy even as the Congress and the BJP sparred and the main opposition party demanded the sacking of Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

While the new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw asserted that illegal surveillance was not possible with checks and balances in the country's laws following allegations of snooping on politicians, journalists and others using Pegasus software, Minister Shah lashed out at the Congress and international organisations for suggesting that the government was involved, stressing such 'obstructers' and 'disrupters' will not be able to derail India's development trajectory with their conspiracies.

The BJP hit out at the Congress over its attack on the central government in the wake of the Pegasus snooping row, and claimed there is not a 'shred of evidence' to link either the ruling party or the Modi dispensation with the matter.

As the snooping row echoed in Parliament on the first day of the Monsoon session, Vaishnaw made a suo motu statement in the Lok Sabha to say that the media reports on alleged snooping published a day before the start of the session 'cannot be a coincidence' and stressed there is 'no substance' behind the sensationalism.

'The press reports of 18th July 2021 also appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions,' Vaishnaw said in his first statement in Parliament as a minister.

Incidentally, Vaishnaw along with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was among those whose phone numbers were listed as potential targets for hacking through an Israeli spyware sold only to the government agencies, an international media consortium reported on Monday.

Congress and other opposition parties also hit out at the government over the phone-hacking charge and demanded an independent judicial or parliamentary committee probe. MPs protested on this issue, besides others, in both Houses of Parliament, leading to several adjournments.

Vaishnaw, however, did not specify whether the Indian government was using Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli company NSO.

Media reports on Sunday claimed that spyware Pegasus was used to conduct surveillance on about 300 Indians, including ministers, political leaders, government officials and journalists.

Vaishnaw said many 'over the top' allegations have been around the highly sensational story published by a web portal last night.

'The press reports have appeared a day before the Monsoon Session of the Parliament. This cannot be a coincidence. In the past, similar claims were made regarding the use of Pegasus on Whatsapp,' he said.

Those reports, he said, had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including in the Supreme Court.

The NSO, the company which owns the technology, has also 'clearly rubbished the claims in the report', the minister stressed.

The NSO had said that the list of countries shown using Pegasus in the report was incorrect and many countries mentioned were not even the clients of the company, he added.

India, the minister said, has an 'established protocol when it comes to surveillance... any form of illegal surveillance is not possible with the checks and balances in our laws and our robust institutions.' In a hard-hitting statement, Minister Shah questioned the timing of the 'selective leaks' on the eve of the Monsoon session and said they have been amplified by a few whose only aim is to do whatever is possible to humiliate India on the world stage.

'The timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions… Aap Chronology Samajhiye!,' he said, referring to opposition parties stalling proceedings in Parliament on Monday.

'This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations that do not like India to progress.

'Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection,' he said.

The home minister said he wanted to assure the people of India that the Modi government's priority is clear – 'National Welfare' - and it will keep working to achieve that no matter what happens.

An international media consortium reported Sunday that more than 300 verified mobile phone numbers, including of two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge besides scores of business persons and activists in India could have been targeted for hacking through the Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies.

Shah said those who intend to derail India's progress are peddling the same old narratives about the country.

'To see the rudderless Congress, jump on to this bandwagon is not unexpected.

'They have a good past experience in trampling over democracy and with their own house not in order, they are now trying to derail anything progressive that comes up in Parliament,' he said.

Accusing the government of 'treason' and compromising on national security over the Pegasus spyware issue, the Congress demanded the sacking of Minister Shah and a probe into the 'role of the prime minister' in the entire matter.

At a joint press conference with other party leaders, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala held Shah responsible and said the Opposition party's first demand is his immediate dismissal.

He said the Congress will take all Opposition parties on-board over the issue and decide on whether to ask for a judicial or parliamentary probe in the matter.

'The person responsible for deployment of this illegal spyware Pegasus is no less than the home minister, who must be sacked,' he said. 'Our first demand is the immediate sacking of Minister of Home and Internal security Amit Shah and a probe into the role of the prime minister in the matter.' Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge said Shah should immediately resign as he 'does not deserve' to occupy the position he holds.

Addressing a press conference, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad questioned the credentials of those behind the media report, alleging that The Wire, the news portal which broke it in India, had been earlier associated with stories which have been found to be 'incorrect' while Amnesty International has a declared 'anti-India' agenda in many ways.

Those who broke the story themselves said that the presence of a particular number in the database does not confirm that it is infected with Pegasus, he said while questioning the timing of the story coming as it did a day before Parliament's Monsoon session began on Monday.

He also brushed aside a question on the Congress' demand for Minister Shah's resignation and probe against the prime minister, and accused the opposition party of hitting a 'new low' in making baseless allegations in a manner that was bereft of any political propriety.

With the Congress 'shrinking and losing', the entire row is timed to disrupt Parliament and build a baseless agenda, Prasad said, as he raked up snooping allegations levelled against the opposition party in the past, including a row involving then Union ministers Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram.

'The BJP strongly refutes and condemns the baseless and bereft of political propriety comments levelled by Congress against the BJP. This is a new low in the political discourse of a party that has ruled India for over 50 years.' PTI RR CS NKB MBI SKC KR ACB GSN GSN GSN

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