New Delhi: Shashi Tharoor, Congress leader and chairperson of the parliamentary standing committee on Information Technology, has said there are “limitations to how far the committee can go” with respect to the Pegasus spyware controversy in which the Modi government has been accused of using the software to hack the phones of several dozens of activists, journalists and politicians.
Tharoor also conceded that it would be difficult for the opposition to communicate the “privacy breach” to the public, which, he added, is more immediately concerned with “existential crises like Covid, fuel price rise and inflation”.
In an exclusive interview with ThePrint, Tharoor said the parliamentary standing committee is “not like a committee of the US Congress” and can only do so much with its limited powers.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the committee has limitations. I don’t want to pretend otherwise. We’re not like the committee, say of the US Congress, which has certain standing and rights, including the right to subpoena witnesses,” Tharoor told ThePrint.
“They are like a court of law, which we are not. And that’s one of the principal reasons why I, as chairman of the IT committee, have said that while we will do what we can, we can only question the secretaries to the government. But there are limits to how far we can go.”
He added that the “committee will do its job” and discuss the Pegasus matter in its upcoming meeting scheduled for 28 July on the topic of ‘citizens, data privacy and security’.
He, however, suggested a Supreme Court-monitored judicial inquiry.
“The SC monitored judicial probe can come to the point of establishing whether any crime has been committed by those who have misused it,” Tharoor said. “If the government says they have not done so then some foreign agency has done this, that becomes an equally grave matter as a threat to national security.”
Last week, The Wire reported that several dozens of Indians were listed as potential targets whose phones were hacked, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, political strategist Prashant Kishor and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew MP Abhishek Banerjee among others.
‘Rafale got little traction, privacy will be tough to communicate’
Speaking on the issue of the potential misuse of Pegasus to track citizens and opposition leaders, Tharoor said it is an issue of “breach of privacy”, but it won’t be easy to communicate the gravity of it to the people.
“It’s not easy. And I would agree that perhaps the vast majority of the Indian public has not fully understood the gravity of the fact that the government may have used Pegasus against its own citizens against its own people, if it is proven,” Tharoor said.
The senior Congress leader further said that it is difficult to tell if an issue like privacy will be able to stick with the masses.
“Now the question is, can we go out in our campaigns and explain this to the public, when the public is more concerned about surviving Covid, or losing jobs, or the price of petrol and fuel all of which we are, of course, raising separately. Will this be able to stick? I don’t know,” he said.
The Congress party has been leading a charge against the Modi government for over a week now, ever since the story broke. Rahul Gandhi demanded that Home Minister Amit Shah resign, and that there be a probe into the role of PM Modi.
Tharoor, however, said that Rahul Gandhi’s campaign against the Modi government over the Rafale issue in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls “didn’t get much traction” with the public.
“I must admit that Rahul Gandhi’s efforts in the 2019 election to raise the controversies around Rafale never quite made the kind of traction with the public, because it was not a bread and butter thing that affected their daily lives,” he said.
However, the Lok Sabha MP added that the opposition leaders have a duty to raise these concerns and “be conscious about the grave dangers to our country, to our state, to our constitution and to our democracy”.
‘Why would foreign country be interested in woman who accused ex-CJI’
One of the names reported to have been hacked using the Pegasus software is that of the woman who accused former CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Gogoi is now a Rajya Sabha member.
Tharoor said the fact that her name is in the list of those spied upon is an example of “precisely why it’s difficult to imagine that a foreign country would be behind this”.
“It’s difficult to see what interest a foreign country would have in this poor lady and her family and friends,” he said. “Or indeed, in many of the others whose names have been targeted. Whereas you can very well see why the ruling party might have an interest in them.”
Asked whether he is concerned that the presence of the name of the woman in the list complicates the Supreme Court’s position, and whether there will be a conflict of interest if the body is to lead a probe into the matter, Tharoor said “it depends on the apex court itself”.
“The population of judges keeps changing with retirements. So, many of the judges who have directly served with Justice Gogoi are not going to be on the court for much longer, and many have already retired, as indeed he has,” Tharoor said. “And if it so happens that the court appoints a judge to look into this matter who feels compromised, then that judge can always recuse themselves.”
He added that “the court is a big enough institution that it should be able to deal with this matter without feeling somehow that it’s not able to rise to the occasion because a former chief justice was involved”.
‘Gross misuse of taxpayers money, illegal’
Tharoor further said that if it is proven that the Modi government was behind the tracking of opposition leaders and others, it’s “not only unethical but also a gross misuse of the taxpayers’ money”.
“While no one would object to the government intercepting communications lawfully to track terrorists or prevent crimes, private citizens, including opposition politicians enjoy a fundamental right to privacy… and for the ruling party to use Pegasus to obtain information on its political opponents, as the targeting of Rahul Gandhi or Prashant Kishor would suggest, would not just be unethical, but a misuse of taxpayers money for partisan political purposes,” he said.
Tharoor added that it would also be “illegal” because the law only allows specific kinds of interception under the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, and Information Technology Act, 2000. “Both of these (laws) allow interception in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state or maintaining friendly relations with foreign states,” he said.
The leader further added that using Pegasus would be illegal unless those who have used it can demonstrate otherwise.
“They can say, well, we thought Prashant Kishor was a secret agent of China, and we did it for national security,” he added. “If that’s the allegation, they better say so because without demonstrating that this is an incredibly serious illegality, and I have to tell you very seriously, it is also a threat to Indian democracy. After all, this list is infinitely expandable.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)