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Pegasus row: If government did not conduct surveillance then who did, asks Congress

Chidambaram demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a statement in Parliament clarifying whether there had been surveillance or not.

SNS | New Delhi |

Asking for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the Pegasus controversy, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram on Sunday said that the government should either go for the investigation or appoint a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to take the issue further.

Chidambaram demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a statement in Parliament clarifying whether there had been surveillance or not.

Chidambaram said he was not sure that one can go to the extent of saying that the entire electoral mandate of 2019 was vitiated by the “unlawful snooping” but added that it may have “helped” the BJP to score that victory which has been “tainted” by the allegations.

In an interview with PTI, Chidambaram also said a probe by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) can be more effective than an investigation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, asserting that the former would be more empowered by Parliament.

Asked about Parliament IT panel head Shashi Tharoor’s remarks that the subject is “already on the mandate of my committee” and a JPC is not required, Chidambaram expressed doubts whether the IT panel with a majority of BJP members will allow a full investigation into the matter.

“The parliamentary committee rules are rather strict. For example they cannot take evidence openly but a JPC can be empowered by Parliament to take evidence in public view, to cross examine witnesses, and to summon documents. So I think a JPC will have far more powers than a parliamentary committee,” he said adding that he is not diminishing the role of the parliamentary committee to the extent it can probe the matter and is welcome to do so.

On the government’s response to the allegations, Chidambaram referred to IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s statement in Parliament, saying he is obviously a very “clever minister” and therefore the statement has been “very cleverly worded”.

“He (Vaishnaw) denies that there was any unauthorised surveillance. He does not deny that there was surveillance. He does not deny that there was authorised surveillance. Surely the minister knows the difference between authorised surveillance and unauthorised surveillance,” the Congress leader said.

Posing questions for the government, he asked whether there was surveillance at all and whether snooping was done through Pegasus.

“If Pegasus spyware was used, who acquired it? Was it acquired by the government or by one of its agencies,” he said asking the government to come clean on the amount paid to acquire the spyware.

“These are simple, straightforward questions which the average citizen is asking and the minister should answer that directly. After all, France has ordered an investigation when it was revealed that President (Emmanuel) Macron’s number was one of the numbers that were hacked. Israel itself has ordered an investigation by its National Security Council,” he said.

If two major countries can order an investigation, why should India not order a probe and find answers to the four simple questions, he asked.

Chidambaram said the matter also raises issues of national security because if the government says that it did not conduct surveillance, then the question arises of who conducted the snooping.

“Was it a rogue agency in India doing it without the knowledge of the government or was it a foreign agency hacking into Indian telephones without the knowledge of the government. Either way…it is a more serious matter than the government conducting the surveillance,” he said.

Asked about the Opposition’s demand of a Supreme Court-monitored probe and whether the top court should take it up suo motu, Chidambaram said he would not want to comment on what the court may or may not do, but pointed out that there is already a public interest litigation filed by one or two persons, separately, asking it to take suo motu cognisance of the Pegasus revelations.

Asked about Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertion that the allegations were aimed at humiliating India at the world stage, Chidambaram said the home minister chose his words very carefully and did not deny that there was surveillance.

“He (Shah) does not deny that a certain number of telephones in India were hacked using Pegasus software. So, in fact, rather than what the home minister said, what he did not say is more important,” he said.

If the home minister is unable to categorically deny that Indian telephones were infiltrated by the spyware, then obviously he must take responsibility for this “scandal” happening under his watch, Chidambaram said.

He said PM Modi should have made a statement on the first day of Parliament’s Monsoon Session itself when the allegations came to the fore.

“There are only a few agencies which could have done this surveillance. All the agencies are under the prime minister’s control,” he said.

“Each minister knows only what is under his department. The PM knows what is happening under all departments. So, it is the prime minister who should come forward and say whether there was surveillance or not and if there was surveillance whether it was authorised or not,” said Chidambaram.

(With PTI inputs)