Ashwini Vaishnaw -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new minister for information technology -- was on the list of targets for surveillance through Israeli spyware Pegasus four years ago, reported news portal "The Wire" in its second set of explosive revelations shortly after the minister defended the government in parliament.
According to The Wire, the former Odisha-cadre Indian Administrative Service officer was listed for possible surveillance in 2017, when he had not joined the BJP. "Another number, apparently listed in the name of his wife, also appears to have been selected," The Wire reported.
Along with Mr Vaishnaw, Prahlad Singh Patel -- the junior minister for water resources -- was among those whose phone numbers allegedly appeared on the list.
Earlier today, Mr Vaishnaw had responded to opposition allegations on Pegasus on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
Calling it a "sensational story" without any substance, the minister said the web portal's report itself "clarifies that the presence of a number does not amount to snooping".
He also said that it was "no coincidence" that the news broke a day before the parliament's Monsoon Session started.
Quoting NSO, the seller of Pegasus, the minister added, "Such services are openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime, and are commonly used by governmental agencies as well as by private companies worldwide. It is also beyond dispute that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or with NSO. So there can be no factual basis to suggest that the use of the data somehow equates to surveillance".
The opposition has alleged that his comments constitute an admission that the government has purchased and deployed Pegasus. The NSO has categorically said it only supplies the software to "vetted governments" and their official agencies.
Citing his comments, the Congress demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah resign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi be investigated.
According to the latest revelations, Congress's Rahul Gandhi and his two aides were on the list. So was election strategist Prashant Kishor, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhishek Banerjee, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, who gave a dissenting opinion on the election body's ruling on complaints against PM Modi and Mr Shah during the campaign for 2019 election.
Demanding that the Prime Minister "answer to the nation", the Congress said, "Even today, the new IT Minister sought to mislead the Parliament by virtually denying any knowledge of NSO owner the 'Pegasus' software".
The IT Minister, perhaps, "did not even read the former IT Minister's reply in Parliament dated 28th November, 2019, wherein he had admitted that there were 121 names from India in the Pegasus infected list and that Govt of India had issued a notice to NSO, owner of the Pegasus spyware," the party said.
In a statement, the Congress also said, "The unpardonable sin is that the snooping and hacking of cell phones through 'Pegasus' has given illegal access to the entire conversations, passwords, contact lists, text messages and live voice calls of India's security apparatus, Union Ministers, Opposition Leaders, Paramilitary Chiefs, Supreme Court Judges and others. This is clearly "TREASON" and total abdication of "National Security" by the Modi Government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data".