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New Delhi: Amid the varied categories of individuals whose numbers appear on the Pegasus Project list, a few businessmen and bureaucrats who make up parts of India’s political economy also find their time in the sun.
This includes disgraced industry captains like Naresh Goyal, formerly of Jet Airways, to former top PSU officials such as B.C. Tripathi, ex-chief at GAIL India.
The leaked database analysed by the Pegasus Project contains several hundred numbers from India – believed to be persons of interest to an unknown government client of the NSO Group that is focused on India – and includes some whose associated smartphones were found to have had traces of the Israeli spyware, Pegasus, as per a forensic analysis conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.
NSO Group, which sells Pegasus to select governments, says the company and its clients are not connected to the database in any way. And in an official response to the media organisations which investigated the list, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeITY) has denied placing any of the specific individuals identified under surveillance.
Apart from Goyal, the most prominent names on the list are numbers used by SpiceJet chairman and managing director Ajay Singh and the Essar Group’s Prashant Ruia.
Known for his association with the BJP, Ajay Singh has over the last few years steered the airline through a remarkable recovery after taking it back from media baron Kalanidhi Maran.
As The Wire and its Pegasus Project partners have maintained, unless the phones are technically examined, it is not possible to ascertain if the numbers from the potential list were actually infected. None of the individuals in this story whom The Wire contacted for this story agreed to have their phones subjected to a forensic examination.
The list also contains multiple businessmen or officials of companies who have had run-ins with the law over the last few years, mostly due to investigations of loan fraud. This includes Vikram Kothari of Rotomac Pens (and his son Rahul), and C. Sivasankaran, former Aircel promoter and maverick entrepreneur.
Jet and Goyal
Over the last few years, the Jet Airways boss has quickly fallen from the skies of Indian aviation. Towards the end of 2018, multiple media reports indicated that the cash-strapped airline was headed for bankruptcy if it did not receive a fresh infusion of funds. Months of back-and-forth over a debt resolution plan then took place, which at one point included the offer of the Jet Airways founder pumping in more money. Eventually, Goyal and his wife stepped down from the board in March 2019, and leaders of the airline took over management.
Goyal’s appearance on the Pegasus Project list comes a few weeks before he was stopped at the Mumbai airport in May 2019, and his number stops appearing in the database around a month after he was prevented from leaving the country. The Wire confirmed that the former Jet Airways boss was using the number listed in the database in 2019, but it is unclear whether he still uses it.
In July 2019, the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) officially ordered a probe into several Jet Airways group companies.
“Company was prima facie indulging into malpractices, mismanagement through siphoning/writing-off/ diversion of funds and other financial irregularities, including but not limited to preferential/related party transactions prejudicial to the public interest,” said MCA in the order.
In the last year, the Jet Airways founder has also been under the scanner of the enforcement directorate.
The entries for Kotharis and Sivasankaran also appear to match key points of the investigation that law enforcement authorities have conducted. For instance, the number of the former Aircel promoter was added a month before the CBI booked him and other individuals in the IDBI loan fraud case.
Lobbyists, and the mutual fund industry
There are at least three business executives, working in big corporate houses, who are also on the list. Their job titles vary, but all three effectively operate in a similar role – engaging with thorny policy issues that affect their companies.
These include a mid-level official at the Adani Group, one individual who used to work with the Essar Group and another formerly with SpiceJet. The Wire is not disclosing their names, primarily because they are not part of top management or promoters of their firms, nor have they been in the public eye, and each has requested anonymity.
Two other individals on the list have regularly found themselves dealing with controversies that engulfed their companies. They are V. Balasubramanian, long-time associated with Reliance Industries, and A.N. Sethuraman of Reliance ADA Group. Both professionals once belonged to the undivided Reliance Group, and were accused of being involved in an Official Secrets Act case pertaining to stolen government documents. In August 2019, the Delhi high court set aside a trial court order allowing the criminal prosecution of RIL and three of its officials for allegedly possessing secret documents.
Justice Sunil Gaur’s decision came on the appeals by RIL and its then group president V. Balasubramanian, vice-president A.N. Sethuraman, and general manager (corporate affairs) Shankar Adawal against the trial court order.
The leaked list also contains at least five corporate executives associated with India’s mutual fund industry. These include professionals from companies such as Franklin Templeton, DSP BlackRock and Motilal Oswal. The Wire is not disclosing their names, primarily for the reasons stated above. The Wire‘s reportage could also not ascertain whether whether their presence on the list is tied to their occupation.
Finally, key people in India’s public sector also appear to have been selected as potential candidates for surveillance.
The Wire can confirm that a phone number used by B.C. Tripathi – formerly head of state-run GAIL India who joined Essar in January 2020 as non-executive chairman – is on the list. Tripathi’s selection as a possible candidate for surveillance comes a month after he took up the top post at the natural gas corporation and his number appears in the leaked records on-and-off for almost a year afterwards.
Two numbers, one for a former boss of Life Insurance Corporation of India and the other for a former executive director of the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertiliser Corporation also appears on the list.
A former PSU bureaucrat who headed a major state-run firm for four years told The Wire that most people who agree to take up these jobs assume that a certain amount of surveillance is happening.
“I have never heard of Pegasus or anything of that sort. But when you take over a position that is closely tied to the country’s strategic interest, it is expected that there will be a certain monitoring. This happens when you are being vetted for the job, but also even afterwards. Especially if you are in a field that has corporate interests or tough policy decisions,” the bureaucrat told The Wire.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.