The Israeli spyware 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, according to an investigative report in The New York Times.
The 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 Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel in July 2017 - to become the first Indian prime minister to visit the country.
"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.
For the uninitiated, a massive controversy had erupted last year when the NSO Group hit the headlines with the alleged use of its Pegasus software by some governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a number of countries, including India.
From Congress to Left, here's how political parties reacted after the NYT report
The Congress today launched an all-out attack on the government, accusing it of deceiving Parliament, duping the Supreme Court, hijacking democracy and indulging in treason.
The grand old party said it intends to raise the issue in the budget session starting next week, 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.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi accused the government of treason by allegedly "tapping" phones of opposition leaders, armed forces and the judiciary using the Pagasus spyware.
"The Modi Government bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Government functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason," Gandhi said on Twitter.
"The Modi Government has committed treason," he alleged.
Addressing a press conference on the matter, Congress general secretary and chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala alleged the Modi government "deceived" Parliament as well as "duped" the Supreme Court.
He said the BJP machinery engaged in a massive strategy to also "dupe" the people of the country as it is now clear that the government led by PM Modi "purchased the illegal and unconstitutional" spyware from Israel and used it against opposition leaders, the judiciary, the media, and even its own functionaries.
He alleged the government used public money to illegally purchase the cyber tool and spy upon its own people, and thus "hijacked" democracy. They committed an act of treason ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he alleged.
"It is now very clear that Parliament was deceived by the Modi government, the Supreme Court was also duped and the people of India were lied to by the Modi government and its ministers," Surjewala said, adding these things being clear now, the role of the prime minister and his responsibility is now directly in question.
"We will seek accountability from the prime minister on the floor of the Parliament, along with that of the government in the people's court," he said.
"We will urge upon the Supreme Court to suo motu now take note and issue appropriate penal proceedings against this government for attempting to deliberately and knowingly deceive the Supreme Court," Surjewala said.
"It is treason, it is hijack of democracy and it is a systematic deception and attack on the fundamental rights of privacy and dismantling of national security considering who all were spied upon illegally and unconstitutionally by this government," he alleged.
Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, who joined him at the press conference, said when the government was "not ready to discuss the issue of Pegasus on our demand (during Monsoon Session of Parliament last year), it shows that they wanted to hide something from the people of the country." The money belongs to the public but these people are using it for snooping on people who are opposing them, he alleged.
Kharge said if the government was doing it for the safety and security of the country, it was fine, but "they are using it against Opposition leaders, ministers and government functionaries, the judiciary and the media".
"We will ensure that those guilty will be held accountable and raise this vociferously in Parliament," he added.
The Left parties also demanded the government's explanation over the media report and said its silence was an "acceptance of criminal activity".
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."
CPI general secretary D Raja said the government hid the truth on the issue from Parliament and they were now answerable.
"Now it is clear that the government was hiding some truths about the Pegasus spyware even from Parliament. Now, they have been exposed. Parliament session is close and they will be questioned on this. Who knows on whom the spyware has been used. The government should answer. Silence only means that they have indulged in wrongdoing," Raja said.
Meanwhile, Union minister Gen V K Singh called The New York Times "Supari Media" over its report.
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 known "Supari Media".
(With PTI inputs)