The Pegasus malware controversy and its reverberations in Karnataka may have an impact whenever elections take place in the state next.
It gives an additional handle for the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) to try turning the tables against the BJP on grounds of impropriety.
Reports have suggested that phones belonging to politicians in Karnataka’s Congress-JDS government were put under surveillance in 2019 using the Pegasus malware.
The phone numbers of the then deputy chief minister G Parameshwara, personal secretaries of then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and former chief minister Siddaramaiah were selected as possible targets for surveillance, the reports said.
The Wire news media, as part of the consortium of media organisations that investigated Pegasus, said the phones could have been tapped in the run-up to toppling the Congress-JDS coalition government in 2019.
The coalition government fell after 17 MLAs defected to the BJP, most of whom were later rewarded with ministries by Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa.
But in a caveat the report said that in the absence of digital forensics it was not possible to conclusively establish that the phones of politicians were infected or subjected to an attempted hack.
While the issue rocked the parliament for two days with multiple adjournments, in Karnataka, the Congress party and the JDS attacked the BJP central leadership.
Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah called it the dirty game of BJP, while Kumaraswamy said the saffron party can stoop to low levels to gain power and warned people that the party may even snoop into the private lives of citizens.
Political observers believe the opposition parties, with other factors, could capitalise on the issue if they build evidence-based narratives to win the next election.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was the CM of Gujarat, was notorious for tapping phones of innocent people.The habit by birth (huttuguna) is difficult to let go, Siddaramaiah said in a tweet. “But, snooping into the private lives of people is not only unconstitutional but also innocent.”
Meanwhile, Kumaraswamy, who was once accused by the BJP of tapping phones during his tenure as the chief minister in the coalition government, hit back at the saffron party.
“The BJP-led central government, which had accused me of spying, is eventually spying on me. They even ordered a CBI investigation.The BJP, which had already stepped in the improper path, was on self-deception mode by investigating me. Desperate for power, the BJP is stooping too low. It is dangerous,” Kumaraswamy had said.
But the BJP maintained that the entire Pegasus controversy was a ‘web of lies’ to tarnish the image of the party and that it would not affect their vote bank in the next state elections. “So far they haven’t presented concrete evidence. Let them say what information is allegedly accessed. It’s all a lie and it won’t affect the vote bank in the state for the next elections,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Shesharaghavachar said.
While the Pegasus issue is much more than phone tapping, the snooping controversy is not new to Karnataka. The most infamous incident was during the Ramakrishna Hegde regime in Karnataka in 1988, when he was alleged to have ordered the tapping of phones of opposition leaders, invading their privacy. He was forced to step down.
While the Telegraph Act allows lawful interception of phones and computers by the governments at the Centre and in the states under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, if done illegally, it is punishable under the legislation. But the Pegasus case relates to hacking and it’s prohibited under the Information Technology Act.
But more recently, politicians across party lines in Karnataka had complained against the ruling regime of tapping phones.Coincidentally, much of it came soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in July 2017 and struck $2 billion defence deals.
In November 2017, six months ahead of the Karnataka state elections, Congress leader DK Shivakumar and former water resource minister MB Patil had accused the central agencies of tapping their phones.
After the coalition turned to power, the BJP in 2018 accused them of tapping phones of legislators for political gains.
But after the government fell and soon after BJP came to power in 2019, it ordered a CBI inquiry. They even filed an FIR. But two years on, the final report, which is ready according to senior police officials, has been silently buried.
Again in 2020 and 2021, independent MP Sumalatha accused the JDS of phone tapping, DK Shivakumar accused the BJP of phone tapping, and the anti-Yeddyurappa camp within the BJP accused his party members of phone tapping.
“The issue will strengthen the anti-incumbency for the ruling BJP. The Congress and the JDS could capitalise on the issue if they build a constructive evidence-based narrative and play the victim card for the 2023 state elections,” political analyst Prof Muzzafar Azadi said.
But considering that people’s memory is short and there’s literally 22 months to go for state elections, he said it could fail if the parties do not sustain the narrative.
“BJP is crisis-ridden. Replacing Yediyurappa, as development indicates, will have cascading effects. It would realign the social coalition. Along with these factors, the opposition parties may play the Pegasus issue to their advantage.”
Pegasus, the military-grade malware created by Israeli-based cyber surveillance company, NSO Group, has come under scrutiny after an investigation by a consortium of media organisations found that governments used the spyware to hack smartphones and spy on journalists, political opponents, and human rights activists among others.