Key Cong-JDS leaders were ‘possible targets’ of Pegasus spyware during 2019 crisis: report

CM Kumaraswamy, Deputy CM Parameshwara, Siddaramaiah’s numbers found on list

During the political turmoil in Karnataka in 2019, which ended in the collapse of the JD(S)-Congress coalition government and the BJP coming to power, the phone numbers of key leaders in the coalition parties and their associates “were selected as possible targets for surveillance”, The Wire reported on Tuesday, as part of the global investigation “The Pegasus Project.”

Phone numbers of the then deputy chief minister Dr. G. Parameshwara, of personal secretaries of the then chief minister H. D. Kumaraswamy, former chief minister Siddaramaiah and a security personnel of the former prime minister H.D. Devegowda were selected as possible targets, according to The Wire’sreview of records of numbers that were of interest to Indian client of Israel’s NSO Group.

Not analysed

However, since none of these phones have been forensically analysed, it is not conclusively proven that they were compromised with Pegasus spyware, the report said.

These numbers were selected, as per The Wire, around the time when 17 MLAs from Congress and JD(S) resigned from the Assembly and left the party leading to the toppling of the coalition government.

Explained: Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp

Though the BJP has denied any role in engineering their resignations, all 17 disqualified legislators are today members of the saffron party with 11 of them being members of the State cabinet.

Responding to the report, Congress alleged that Pegasus spyware was used to topple the coalition government in Karnataka and demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the matter. The party also targeted former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s judgement that exempted 14 Congress MLAs and three JD(S) MLAs from following the whips of their respective parties. The leaders pointed out that the woman who had alleged sexual harassment by Justice Gogoi was also a target for hacking in April, as per The Wire report.

Senior Congress leaders including Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, party leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, general secretary (organization) K.C. Venugopal, Karnataka Congress chief D.K. Shivkumar and general secretary (Karnataka) Randeep Surjewala held a press conference in Delhi to target the Narendra Modi-led government over the latest revelations in the Pegasus snooping controversy.

Mr. Kharge said the party would raise the issue in the House as the Pegasus spyware is being used not just to target individuals but also institutions. “They [Mr Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah] came to power through democratic means but are trying to install dictatorial regime,” the Leader of the Opposition said.

The then chief minister and JD(S) leader H. D. Kumaraswamy initially sought to play down the revelations as a “routine process” that he was “not bothered with.”

However, taking to Twitter later, he said, “This is one of the means to bring down State governments and bring up new governments to protect the Union government.”

Mr Parameshwara, among those whose phones were targeted, tweeted, “Every time we believe the BJP-led Union government cannot go any lower, fresh proof arrives to show they can and will stoop to the lowest, do everything, including partnering with foreign powers, to gain power and topple secular governments.” He further said similar modus operandi was used by the BJP to come to power in Goa, Puducherry, Manipur and Madhya Pradesh despite being rejected by the people.

Sources said that Mr. Siddaramaiah, who does not hold a personal number, often uses the number of his personal secretary Venkatesh which figures on the list. Mr. Venkatesh has been working with Mr. Siddaramaiah for over two decades. Mr. Kumaraswamy’s PS Satish’s number and Mr. Devegowda’s security personnel Manjunath Muddegowda’s numbers also figure on the list.

Interestingly, the BJP-led State government had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into alleged illegal phone tapping of political leaders, especially defectors who brought down the coalition government and their associates during H.D. Kumaraswamy’s tenure as chief minister. Chief Minister B. S. Yediyurappa had ordered the probe in August 2019, a month after coming to power.

Recalling this, Mr. Kumaraswamy said in a tweet, “The Union government which had put me under surveillance finally accused me of phone tapping and conducted a CBI inquiry.”

Mr. Shivakumar also referred to this and said, “Mr. Yediyurappa was kind enough to order a CBI probe into the allegations days after coming to power. I request Government of India to order a judicial probe led by a Supreme Court judge with the same earnestness that Mr. Yediyurappa ordered a probe.”

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