New Delhi: Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram on Sunday (July 25) said the Centre should either call for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe into the Pegasus snooping allegations or request the Supreme Court to appoint a sitting judge to investigate the matter, and demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a statement in Parliament clarifying whether there had been surveillance or not.
Chidambaram said he was not sure that one can go to the extent of saying that the entire electoral mandate of 2019 was vitiated by the “unlawful snooping” but added that it may have “helped” the BJP to score that victory which has been “tainted” by the allegations.
Speaking with PTI, Chidambaram said a probe by JPC can be effective than an investigation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology.
Chidambaram expressed doubts whether the IT panel with a majority of BJP members will allow a full investigation into the matter.
“The parliamentary committee rules are rather strict. 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 said.
Last Sunday, an international media consortium reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers, including of two ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders besides scores of businesspersons and activists in India, could have been targeted for hacking through the Pegasus spyware of the Israeli firm NSO.
The government has been denying allegations in the matter. On the government’s response to the allegations, Chidambaram referred to IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw statement in Parliament, saying he is obviously a very “clever minister” and therefore the statement has been “very cleverly worded”.
“He (Vaishnaw) denies that there was any unauthorised surveillance. He does not deny that there was surveillance. He does not deny that there was authorised surveillance. Surely the minister knows the difference between authorised surveillance and unauthorised surveillance”.
“If Pegasus spyware was used, who acquired it? Was it acquired by the government or by one of its agencies,” he asked.
Chidambaram asked the Centre to come clean on the amount paid to acquire the spyware. “These are simple, straightforward questions which the average citizen is asking and the minister should answer that directly. 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,” he said .
Chidambaram said the matter also raises issues of national security. “Was it a rogue agency in India doing it without the knowledge of the government or was it a foreign agency hacking into Indian telephones without the knowledge of the government. Either way…it is a more serious matter than the government conducting the surveillance,” he said.
On the Opposition’s demand of a SC-monitored probe and whether the top court should take it up suo motu, “Be that as it may, the government should request either Parliament to constitute a JPC or the government should request the Supreme Court to spare an honourable judge to conduct the investigation,” he said.
On Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertion that the allegations were aimed at humiliating India at the world stage, Chidambaram said the home minister chose his words very carefully and did not deny that there was surveillance.
“He (Shah) does not deny that a certain number of telephones in India were hacked using Pegasus software. So, in fact, rather than what the home minister said, what he did not say is more important,” he said. If the home minister is unable to categorically deny that Indian telephones were infiltrated by the spyware, then obviously he must take responsibility for this “scandal” happening under his watch, Chidambaram said.
Asked about the logjam in Parliament over the issue and calls from Opposition ranks that the PM should make a statement on the Pegasus issue, he said Modi should have made a statement on the first day of Parliament’s Monsoon Session itself when the allegations came to the fore.
“There are only a few agencies which could have done this surveillance. All the agencies are under the prime minister’s control,” he said. “Each minister knows only what is under his department. The PM knows what is happening under all departments. So, it is the prime minister who should come forward and say whether there was surveillance or not and if there was surveillance whether it was authorised or not,” Chidambaram said.
(With inputs from PTI)