Ground Report | New Delhi: Pegasus case; In a bid to topple the opposition-run state government in Karnataka in July 2019, Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameshwara and personal secretaries to the Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah were chosen as potential targets for surveillance, as per The Wire’s review of records of numbers that were of interest to an Indian client of Israel’s NSO Group.
These numbers are part of a database accessed by French media non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with several international media organizations working under the Pegasus project. (Pegasus case)
Records show that senior leaders’ numbers were chosen when there was a power tussle between the JDS-Congress coalition government and the BJP in 2019 and 17 MLAs of the ruling coalition abruptly resigned, forcing the House to go for a trust vote. Incidentally, this was also the time when Rahul Gandhi changed his old number, which had been on the spyware target list since 2018, to a new one and this too was targeted.
Without a forensic investigation, it is difficult to tell whether the phone with numbers linked to Karnataka politics was successfully inserted spyware or became the target of hacking attempts. However, the timing of their selection as potential candidates for surveillance is crucial as, during the power tussle, the Congress and JD(S) alleged that the BJP, actively supported by the central government, was trying to topple their coalition government by buying out their party’s MLAs.
Although the BJP had denied these allegations, it is a fact that all the rebel MLAs, who were disqualified by the Speaker, later joined the BJP and were fielded as candidates in the by-elections held after the fall of the Kumaraswamy government.
An analysis of leaked data by The Wire found that in mid-2019 two numbers linked to Kumaraswamy’s personal secretary Satheesh were selected for possible surveillance. This was the time when Congress-JDS were trying to persuade the rebel MLAs. When The Wire informed him about this, he declined to comment. However, he did confirm that the number found in the leaked database was used by him in 2019.
Meanwhile, the phone number of Venkatesh, the personal secretary of former Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah, was also selected. Sources close to the former chief minister say that Siddaramaiah does not use any personal phone for many years and relies on the phones of his colleagues for conversations etc. This is the reason why it is very important to find Venkatesh’s number on this list at this time.
Venkatesh, who has worked with Siddaramaiah for more than 27 years, confirmed to The Wire that he used the numbers found in the leaked database and expressed surprise at the possible surveillance. He said, ‘I don’t know that my phone was on target for spying. All I can say is that I have not done anything illegal. If what you are saying is true, then it is wrong and I strongly protest against it. (Pegasus case)
Similarly, Congress Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameshwara was also chosen as a potential target in the midst of this political upheaval. When contacted by The Wire, they confirmed that they were using that number in 2019, but stopped using it for several months.
When asked what he thinks why his number would have been selected, he said, “I have no idea about spyware, but if it was picked up for surveillance as you are claiming, don’t know. Gone. I was not involved in any political management at that time. Nor was I the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee at that time. Significantly, the Congress-JDS government formed in May 2018 fell after 14 months in July 2019 after a long political turmoil. In the trust vote held in the House, the Congress-JDS got only 99 votes against the BJP’s 105 votes.