Phone numbers of top Indian politicians such as former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, Abhishek Banerjee, MP and nephew of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and poll strategist Prashant Kishor have surfaced in the snooping list of a client of the Israel-based NSO Group, Pegasus.
As the Pegasus “snoop files” continue to unfold, names of heavyweight politicians are popping up with each passing second. It is now learnt that the contact number of Vasundhara Raje’s personal secretary, who was appointed to her while she served as the CM of Rajasthan, is on the target list. It also contained the contact of Union minister Smriti Irani’s officer on special duty (OSD).
However, apart from these heavyweight politicians, this onslaught of snooping did not even spare the newly inducted member of Narendra Modi’s new cabinet, Ashwini Vaishnaw who is now the Union minister for electronics and IT. Last week, it was Vaishnaw’s ministry that issued a formal response to the Pegasus Project media consortium denying that any of the individuals mentioned to the PMO in advance had been spied upon.
The minister of state for Jal Shakti, Prahlad Singh Patel was too on the target list among as 300 names that were found on this list during the investigation, The Wire reported. Patel, the MP from Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, was recently shifted to the Jal Shakti ministry under Cabinet Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
However, it was also reported that in the absence of forensics on the phones associated with the numbers on the leaked database, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was successfully deployed against Vaishnaw or Patel, The Wire said.
Adding to these names, what further came as a blow to Bengal is the revelation that the contact numbers of CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee and the chief poll strategist for the Trinamul Congress in the 2021 Bengal assembly poll, Prashant Kishore also feature in the list. Both Abhishek and Kishor are considered as the key strategists that led TMC to sweep the polls with a mammoth vote share.
According to digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and shared with The Wire, Kishore’s phone was broken using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
Their phones, along with that of a close aide to Kishor, however, were not immediately available for forensic investigation, making it impossible to say definitively whether an attempt to hack them was made.
Since NSO insists that only “vetted governments” can purchase Pegasus, the targeting of Kishor is a piece of vital evidence that this deadly spyware is being used in India by an as yet unidentified agency to gather political information from rivals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, The Wire said.
Kishor’s current or one-time role as a key political advisor and strategist for a range of opposition parties, including the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Congress in Punjab, besides the Trinamool, means the agency targeting him is also interested in gathering information about the government’s political opponents in different parts of the country.
The forensic examination of his current phone also shows that what appear to be unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Pegasus attack were made on Kishor’s phone in 2018, just months prior to the general elections of 2019. This was at a time when there was considerable speculation over who Kishor and his much-in-demand election consultancy organisation, I-Pac, would be assisting in the elections.
Traces of Pegasus on Kishor’s phone were also detected in 14 days in June 2021 and 12 days in July 2021, including July 13, the day when he met Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi. In fact, a hack of Kishor’s phone occurred even on the date that The Wire met him and AI helped conduct forensic analysis on it.
Meanwhile, contacts of several junior BJP politicians and members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad such as Praveen Togadia also figured in the database.