The phone numbers of then Karnataka deputy chief minister G Parameshwara and personal secretaries of chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and former CM Siddaramaiah were on the potential list of targets for surveillance in the run-up to the JDS-Congress government’s fall in July 2019, The Wire reported on Tuesday.
The report is part of the Project Pegasus series taken up by an international media consortium to expose alleged abuses of the Pegasus spyware which its Israeli owner NSO says is sold only to “vetted governments”.
The Project Pegasus series has so far alleged that 300 verified phone numbers in India, belonging to journalists, opposition leaders, activists, and even two Union cabinet ministers, were potential targets for hacking through the Israeli spyware.
The latest report in the series published by The Wire says the phone numbers of key political players in the state were selected for potential spying right before 17 MLAs of the ruling alliance resigned, leading to a trust vote in the Karnataka Assembly on July 22, 2019. The HD Kumaraswamy government failed to survive the confidence motion, capping a turbulent 14-month tenure.
Weeks preceding the trust vote had witnessed an intense power struggle triggered by the raft of resignations by rebel lawmakers. The Supreme Court verdict that rebel MLAs should not be compelled to attend the Assembly session had tipped the scales in favour of the BJP.
Twenty one MLAs — Congress-JDS (17), BSP (1), Independents (2) – had skipped the proceedings, reducing the effective strength of the House to 204. The confidence motion moved by Kumarawamy was defeated with 99 members voting for the motion and 105 against it.
In his address to the Assembly, Kumaraswamy had lashed out at the BJP for “repeatedly trying to topple” his government. Congress leader and former CM Siddaramaiah, too, had accused the BJP of trying come to power through backdoor using bribery and “whosesale” trade of MLAs.
The BJP had denied the allegations, accusing the coalition government of mis-governance. The rebel MLAs, however, were later accommodated by the party and given tickets for bypolls that followed.
According to The Wire report, the period of potential surveillance coincides with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi switching to a new mobile number which had been on the potential target list since 2018.
“In the absence of digital forensics, it is not possible to conclusively establish these Karnataka politics-related phones were infected or subjected to an attempted hack. However, the timing surrounding their selections as possible candidates for surveillance is crucial as during the political power game that played out,” the report added.
Reports published by the international media consortium have so far alleged that phone numbers of former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, BJP ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and poll strategist Prashant Kishor were among those listed as potential targets for hacking.
Other potential targets allegedly included West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee and 11 phone numbers belonging to the Supreme Court staffer and her close relatives, who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019.
The Narendra Modi government has dismissed the media reports, 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, IT and Communications Minister Vaishnaw said that with several checks and balances being in place, “any sort of illegal surveillance” by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.