Pegasus comes knocking at the door of PM Modi

Pegasus comes knocking at the door of PM Modi

NEW DELHI: A New York Times report claiming India bought Pegasus spyware as part of a USD 2 billion defence deal with Israel in 2017 triggered a major controversy on Saturday with the Opposition alleging that the government indulged in illegal snooping that amounted to “treason”.

The Opposition parties indicated that they would raise the issue in the Budget Session of Parliament starting Monday, even as Union Minister V K Singh derisively dismissed The New York Times as “Supari Media”.

A government source said the matter related to the Pegasus software was being monitored by a committee constituted by the Supreme Court and its report was awaited.

Reacting to NYT’s report, Singh, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways and Civil Aviation, said on Twitter: “Can you trust NYT?? They are a known “Supari Media”.”

The Congress launched an all-out attack on the government over the report, accusing it of deceiving Parliament, duping the Supreme Court, hijacking democracy and indulging in treason.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter, “The Modi Government bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Government functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces and judiciary – all were targeted by phone tappings. This is treason.” “The Modi Government has committed treason,” he alleged.

The Congress said it intends to raise the issue in the budget session and demand accountability from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government on the floor of Parliament.

The principal opposition party also urged the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognisance of the matter and initiate appropriate penal proceedings against the government for attempting to “deliberately and knowingly deceive” it.

Asked about the issue, Shashi Tharoor, senior Congress leader and chairman of the parliamentary panel on communications and information technology, told PTI, “The government has chosen not to be responsive to the IT Committee about Pegasus, and the stand taken by a number of BJP members — not to permit a quorum when the issue was to be discussed — has also meant that the committee has made no headway in establishing the facts.” “The Supreme Court is pursuing the matter and I wish it well. If our government has used Pegasus in the manner alleged it would be a very grave threat to our democracy,” he said.

In a tweet, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “The (Narendra) Modi government must explain on affidavit why it bought this cyber weapon, who gave the permission for its usage, how were the targets selected and who got these reports?” “Silence on such a critical issue only means an acceptance of its criminal activity,” he said.

CPI general secretary D Raja alleged that the government hid the truth on the issue from Parliament and they were now answerable.

In a tweet, Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi alleged the spyware was used not for defence purposes but to snoop on opposition and journalists.

“If there is BJP, it is possible. They have made the country into a Bigg Boss show,” she said in a tweet in Hindi.

BJP MP Subramanian Swamy said that the Modi government must rebut the New York Times revelation that It did indeed used tax payers’ money to buy the spyware sold by an Israeli company. “This implies prima facie our Govt misled Supreme Court and Parliament. Watergate?” he asked.

Meanwhile, India’s former permanent representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin dismissed as “utter rubbish” the “insinuation” in the NYT report which cited India’s 2019 vote in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to highlight deepening of ties after a deal that included sale of Pegasus.

Tagging a tweet on the NYT report, Akbaruddin, who held the post at the UN from 2016-2020, said, “The insinuation about India’s UN vote is utter rubbish”.

Incidentally, India and Israel marked 30 years of diplomatic relations on Saturday.

The media report said Pegasus and a missile system were the “centerpieces” of a roughly USD 2 billion deal of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear between India and Israel in 2017.

The NYT, in its report titled ‘The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon’, said that the Israeli firm NSO Group had for nearly a decade been “selling its surveillance software on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, promising that it could do what no one else — not a private company, not even a state intelligence service — could do: consistently and reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone”.

The report also referred to Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017 – the first Indian prime minister to do so.

“For decades, India had maintained a policy of what it called ‘commitment to the Palestinian cause’, and relations with Israel were frosty. The Modi visit, however, was notably cordial, complete with a carefully staged moment of him and (then Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu walking together barefoot on a local beach,” it said.

“They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly USD 2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces.

“Months later, Netanyahu made a rare state visit to India. And in June 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation, a first for the nation,” the report said.

Last year, a row had erupted over Pegasus allegedly being used for targeted surveillance in India.

The government, however, had dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people.

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