NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition Congress Party continued countrywide protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, accusing him of turning India into a “surveillance state” following reports that dozens of opposition leaders, journalists, civil society activists and judges were the potential targets of snooping by Israeli-made spyware Pegasus.
The leaked list, which was shared by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit, and rights group Amnesty International, showed that at least 1,000 phone numbers of high-profile Indians were hacked through the spyware. These include two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three important opposition leaders, one sitting judge and scores of businesspersons and activists.
Senior leader of the Congress Party Rahul Gandhi and two aides were among those who were targeted by the Israeli-made spyware.
On Wednesday, the party held a press conference to demand the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah and accountability for the snooping.
“You (Narendra Modi) are trying to turn a democratic state into a surveillance state,” Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamta Banerjee told a large gathering in Kolkata. “Three things make democracy — media, judiciary and the Election Commission — and Pegasus has captured all three.”
Gandhi’s mobile was hacked during the 2019 general elections when he was the main challenger to Modi, according to a Congress Party spokesman.
“Is spying on India’s security forces, judiciary, Cabinet ministers, opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, journalists and other activities through a foreign entity’s spyware not treason and an inexcusable dismantling of national security?” Congress Party spokesman Randeep Surjewala said at a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Indian news portal The Wire, one of the 16 media consortiums investigating the leak, revealed on Tuesday that senior Karnataka politicians and their personal assistants were selected as potential targets for surveillance in 2018-19 when the opposition coalition government was pulled down and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) installed its own government by engineering defections in the opposition camps.
“It’s not merely spying on individuals to defame or control them. It is a sinister conspiracy to destroy democracy and establish dictatorship,” Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress Party leader in the upper house of parliament, told reporters on Tuesday.
The Modi government has called the report false and baseless.
Sudesh Verma, a spokesman for Modi’s ruling BJP party, told Arab News on Wednesday that Indian opposition parties were experts at creating “fiction.”
“If the mobile phones of anyone have been hacked, they should take legal recourse to find the truth,” Verma said. “The government does not need such spyware to snoop on its citizens.”
Pegasus spyware uses a sophisticated method of attack called zero-click attacks, by which it can infect smartphones without users’ knowledge and access virtually all their data.