Two of Karnataka’s senior political leaders condemned the possible hacking of phone numbers associated with them and their staff, following a report in The Wire on a leaked database listing potential targets for surveillance by a client of the Israel-based NSO Group. The NSO Group has consistently maintained that it sells its flagship product, Pegasus, a spying software, only to governments. The report revealed that Satish, the personal secretary of HD Kumaraswamy, a leader of the Janata Dal (Secular) and the former chief minister of Karnataka, was possibly a target of illegal surveillance. Kumaraswamy responded by noting that such attempts represented a, “complete violation of the basic fundamental rights of a person.” He said, “These kinds of developments, according to my personal view, do not reflect well on any party, on any leaders. If anything is right—this issue, this news—then the concerned people who encouraged this kind of situation, they have to repay for that, that’s all.”
G Parameshwara, a Congress leader and the former deputy chief minister of Karnataka, whose number was also reported to be a possible target for surveillance, told me, “It is an insult to the democracy and democratic set-up.” He continued, “How can they intercept telephones? Against the law which is in existence. And it is done, to my knowledge, by none other than those in the government itself … the Government of Karnataka may not be able to answer, but the Government of India needs to speak.” At a press conference held on 20 July, Congress leaders demanded the resignation of Amit Shah, the union home minister, and for an inquiry that examined the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the reported surveillance efforts.
Since 18 July 2021, The Pegasus Project—a collaborative investigation comprising 17 media organisations—has published a series of reports on the NSO Group, an Israeli firm that provides governments across the world with surveillance technology. According to these reports, a leaked database, accessed by the Paris-based non-profit media organisation Forbidden Stories and the global rights-group Amnesty International, revealed that Pegasus may have been used to target more than 50,000 numbers globally. Of these, over 300 verified mobile telephone numbers belonged to Indian ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, members of the legal community, businesspersons, government officials, scientists and rights activists, among others. Independent forensic analysis conducted on at least ten phones from India showed signs of either attempted or successful hacking by Pegasus.
On 20 July, The Wire—which has been investigating the leaked database from India—reported that the records it had reviewed indicated that the phone numbers of key members associated with the Congress and the JD(S) may have been selected as possible targets for illegal surveillance, in mid-2019. In July 2019, a coalition government led by the two parties in Karnataka was facing an existential challenge reportedly brought on by the swift resignation of 17 legislators from the ruling alliance. Eventually, the coalition government failed to prove its majority in a long-drawn trust vote. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader BS Yediyurappa was sworn in as chief minister on 26 July 2019. The BJP denied any role in maneuvering the collective resignations.
All 17 legislators, who had been disqualified by the speaker of the Karnataka assembly under the anti-defection law, went on to join the BJP. Twelve were re-elected to the state assembly after by-polls were conducted in December 2019, and assumed ministerial positions.