Hours after Union Minister for Electronics & Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw rejected in Parliament allegations that Pegasus spyware may have been used to snoop on politicians, journalists and a constitutional authority, among others, his own name popped up in a list of individuals whose phone numbers were potential targets, released by a global collaborative project.
Digital news platform The Wire also named Union minister Prahlad Singh Patel as one of the potential targets, apart from an aide of another Union minister Smriti Irani, and an associate of former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia — their numbers figuring among the 300 “verified” Indian mobile numbers in the list investigated by the global project.
However, The Wire, which is part of the project, noted: “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.”
Patel told The Indian Express, “Since the IT Minister has given a statement in the House, I have nothing to add to it.”
According to the leaked data, two phone numbers of Vaishnaw and one belonging to his wife figure in the list. The three numbers were “marked as potential targets in mid-2017”, the platform said. Vaishnaw was not a politician at the time, with he and his wife running two companies they had founded.
Inducted into the Rajya Sabha in June 2019 from Odisha, Vaishnaw was the surprise choice for Railways, Communications and Electronics and Information Technology Ministries in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent reshuffle.
Vaishnaw could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.
The Wire mentions that Patel “appears to have been a person of particular interest”, as the data includes not just his and his wife’s phone numbers, but that of 15 of his “close associates” such as “private secretaries, political and office associates in Damoh (Patel’s Lok Sabha constituency), and even his cook and gardener as potential targets for surveillance”.
Their phones were “selected as possible candidates for surveillance in mid 2019, days after his son Prabal Patel and his nephew Monu Patel, son of BJP MLA from Narsinghpur Jalam Singh Patel, were arrested and jailed on an attempt to murder charge,” according to The Wire.
The phone number of Sanjay Kachroo, whom Irani had handpicked as her Officer on Special Duty in 2014 and who was in the post till 2015, is in the list. According to The Wire, apart from his number, that of his father and minor son also figure in the leaked data. “Their phone numbers continue to appear in the leaked records for a sizeable part of 2018,” The Wire noted.
Contacted by The Indian Express, Kachroo said, “I don’t wish to comment. I am happy in my family life.”
Scindia’s personal secretary Pradeep Awasthi’s phone may have been under surveillance “for most part of early 2018, months ahead of the state Assembly polls in December 2018”, The Wire said. Scindia is known to have a difficult relationship with the central BJP leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I didn’t know anything about it, what was happening. I have no comments on the subject,” Awasthi said.
Another prominent personality belonging to the Sangh Parivar whose number is mentioned in the leak is Pravin Togadia, the former International Working President of the VHP. The ties between Togadia and Modi have long been strained.
Togadia told The Indian Express, “I have never had anything to hide in my life. Whatever I want to say, I say loud and clear. Whatever I say over the phone, I also say at press conferences. Now if someone does not like me but likes my voice….”
The leaked data was first accessed by France-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab, which shared them with 17 international news organisations from 10 countries.
On Sunday evening, The Wire had reported that 40 Indian journalists, including two of The Indian Express and one earlier with the newspaper, were mentioned in the data as potential targets.