Pegasus project: Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor, Ashwini Vaishnaw, Ashok Lavasa were spyware targets

The names in the Pegasus spy databank – potential targets for surveillance by the authorities that be -- read like a string of nation’s ‘Who is Who’.

These included the ubiquitous former Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and two of his political aides operating from his erstwhile Tughlaq Lane residence, the nondescript poll strategist Prashant Kishor, whose phone, by his own admission, "is still being hacked" although he had changed his handset multiple times. And, curiously, the Centre's new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Another Union Minister in whom there was ‘particular interest’ was Prahlad Patel. According to the news portal ‘The Wire’, the interest seemed to percolate down to not just him and his wife but 15 other people, including his cook and gardener. Such was the expanse of the snooping exercise that it has earned one of the mainstream political parties the sobriquet of "Bharatiya Jasoos (spy) Party," which allegedly has a penchant for listening to ‘bedroom conversations.’

Interestingly, some of the personalities were engaged in a key activity when they possibly became surveillance targets. Rahul Gandhi's phone numbers, which he has since given up, appear to have been selected for targeting from mid-2018 to mid-2019, when the national elections were held. The phone number of Kishore, who is credited with helping Mamata Banerjee defeat the BJP in Bengal, was compromised as recently as July 14, according to forensic analysis. However, the full extent of the use of Pegasus against him is not visible forensically as he no longer uses the device and only traces from 2018 transferred to his current iPhone via backup are visible.

Ashok Lavasa, a former Election Commissioner, who recorded a dissenting opinion on the election body's ruling on complaints against PM Modi and Amit Shah during the 2019 national election campaign, is among the rare constitutional functionaries who was on radar.

Interestingly, former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was recently removed from the Cabinet, had to raise the question why only India was being "targeted" when no less than 45 nations were allegedly using the Israeli spyware.

Ashwini Vaishnaw -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new minister for information technology -- was also on the list of targets, albeit four years ago. According to ‘The Wire’, the former Odisha-cadre Indian Administrative Service officer was listed for possible surveillance in 2017, when he had not joined the BJP.

Vaishnaw responded to opposition allegations on Pegasus on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Calling it a "sensational story" without any substance, the minister said the web portal's report itself "clarifies that the presence of a phone number does not amount to snooping". He also said that it was "no coincidence" that the news broke a day before the parliament's Monsoon Session started.

GOVT STAND: Quoting NSO, the seller of Pegasus, the minister added, "Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO. So, there can be no factual basis to suggest that the use of the data somehow equates to surveillance".

The opposition has alleged that the minister’s comments were an admission that the government has purchased and deployed Pegasus. The NSO has categorically said it only supplies the software to "vetted governments" and their official agencies.

In a statement, the Congress said, "The unpardonable sin is that the snooping and hacking of cell phones through 'Pegasus' has given illegal access to the entire conversations, passwords, contact lists, text messages and live voice calls of India's security apparatus, Union Ministers, Opposition Leaders, Paramilitary Chiefs, Supreme Court Judges and others. This is clearly "TREASON" and total abdication of "National Security" by the Modi Government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data".

That the data was being used for nefarious political ends is apparent when one considers that the mobile number of Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee, nephew of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, was also a potential target.

The list, according to ‘The Wire’ report, also featured “the personal secretary to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, when she was the BJP’s chief minister in Rajasthan, and Sanjay Kachroo, who worked as an officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani in her first years as a Union minister in the Modi government from 2014-2015”. The report said some junior politicians linked to the BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia too featured in the database.

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