New Delhi: The phone numbers of Ashwini Vaishnaw, newly-inducted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his minister of communications, electronics and information technology, and railways, and Prahlad Singh Patel, minister of state for Jal Shakti, or water, were among the 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance during 2017-2019 by a client of the Israel-based NSO group, The Wire can reveal.
Also on the list is the personal secretary to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, when she was the BJP’s chief minister in Rajasthan, and Sanjay Kachroo, who worked as an officer on special duty (OSD) for Smriti Irani in her first years as a Union minister in the Modi government from 2014-2015. Other junior politicians linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s leader, Pravin Togadia, a long-time opponent of Modi from his days as chief minister of Gujarat, are other individuals whose numbers figure in the database.
Patel, a member of parliament from Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, was recently shifted to the Jal Shakti ministry under cabinet minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, where he held an independent charge.
The former Odisha-cadre Indian Administrative Service officer and Rajya Sabha MP Vaishnaw, on the other hand, was given three crucial cabinet portfolios in what was a much-publicised appointment in the latest cabinet reshuffle. He appears to have been targeted for possible surveillance back in 2017, when he had not yet taken the plunge in favour of the BJP. Another number, apparently listed in the name of his wife, also appears to have been selected.
The France-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab had access to these records, which they shared with The Wire and 16 other news organisations worldwide as part of a collaborative investigation and reporting project running over six months.
Working together, the media organisations verified the identities of the people on their list, following which forensic tests were conducted on a cross-section of phones drawn from this list. Amnesty International’s Security Lab, which carried out the process, has confirmed the presence of Pegasus spyware in as many as 37 instruments, 10 of which are in India.
Last week, it was Vaishnaw’s ministry which issued a formal response to the Pegasus Project media consortium denying that any of the individuals mentioned to the PMO in advance had been spied upon.
Vaishnaw was informed of his presence in the leaked database on Sunday but has yet to respond with a comment or reaction.
In the absence of forensics on the phones associated with the numbers on the leaked database, it is not possible to conclusively establish whether Pegasus was successfully deployed against Vaishnaw or Patel.
However, the data suggests that Patel appears to have been a person of particular interest. The leaked list not only contains phone numbers which belonged to him and his wife, but at least 15 of his close associates, including his private secretaries, political and office associates in Damoh, and even his cook and gardener as potential targets for surveillance.
Although The Wire did not approach the two ministers with a request to conduct a forensic examination of their phones as a matter of caution, since both of them were serving Union ministers, it has verified that as many as 18 numbers listed in the records were either previously owned by them and their associates or are still being used by them.
Vaishnaw and his wife’s numbers appear in the leaked records in the later half of 2017.
Prahlad Patel as person of interest
Patel has had a chequered career in the BJP. The OBC Lodh leader began his political life in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and gradually worked his way up under the tutelage of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti. During her short tenure as chief minister, Patel stood by her like a rock, even as she faced opposition from within the Sangh parivar. He also served as the junior coal minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from 1999 to 2004. When Bharti rebelled against the BJP in 2004, Patel also followed suit, only to come back to the saffron party in 2009.
Since then, he has attempted to ingratiate himself to the central leadership of the party. In recent years, he has picked up advocacy of issues close to the Sangh parivar. He has advocated a cow slaughter ban from time to time; got into a verbal duel with the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who he accused of “insulting the Indian flag”; and also as the former culture minister constituted a committee to study the “origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years ago”, inviting scathing criticism from professional historians. The culture ministry under him also attracted ire for issuing tweets commemorating the birth anniversary of the RSS’s M.S. Golwalkar.
In Madhya Pradesh, he is known as one of the biggest detractors of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan within the BJP, and has tried to cultivate his career as a leader in his own right. Therefore, when he was stripped of his independent charge in the cabinet, it raised quite a few eyebrows.
Among his associates who were also selected as potential targets for surveillance include his private secretaries Alok Mohan Nayak, Rajkumar Singh and Aditya Jachak, his media advisor Nitin Tripathi, a number of his close associates in the Damoh region, his cook, gardener and the late sarpanch of Damoh’s Bamhauri village, Devideen, whose death Patel had mourned on Twitter.
The Wire sent out a detailed email informing Patel of the possible hacking of his and his associates’ phone numbers and asked him for a comment. The story will be updated if and when he responds.
In Patel’s case, his phone numbers and that of his associates were selected as possible candidates for surveillance in mid 2019, days after his son Prabal Patel and his nephew Monu Patel, son of BJP MLA from Narsinghpur Jalam Singh Patel, were arrested and jailed on an attempt to murder charge. The Union minister had then said, “All I can say is that it (the arrests) is sad and unfortunate. Law will take its own course. I don’t want to make any further comments.”
His son and nephew were accused of leading an attack in Gotegaon, Narsinghpur on a group following an argument. The incident left four people critically injured. While Prabal, 26, was arrested on June 19, 2019, Monu was on the run. Immediately after Prabal’s arrest, the minister’s brother Jalam Singh Patel had accused the then Congress-led state government of political vendetta, and claimed that both Prabal and Monu weren’t present when the clash happened. After remaining incarcerated for almost two months, the MP high court granted bail to Prabal on August 21, 2019.
Given that Patel was inducted into the Union cabinet only in May 2019, his son’s arrest had the potential to become an embarrassing scandal for the Modi government, though it is not clear if this was the reason for so many of his associates also being selected as targets for surveillance.
The Wharton graduate with an IIT degree
The most prominent highlight of the recent cabinet reshuffle was Ashwini Vaishnaw, a 1994-batch IAS officer. An IIT and Wharton Business School graduate, with substantial corporate sector experience, Vaishnaw’s selection as a minister of three important ministries was projected by the BJP as an important step to include people with technical expertise in the cabinet. He had earlier served as a deputy secretary in the PMO under Vajpayee.
His election to the Rajya Sabha in June 2019 brought rival parties BJP and the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) together. Although the BJD was in a clear position to win all three vacant seats in Odisha, it is said that a last-minute phone call from Modi and home minister Amit Shah to chief minister Naveen Patnaik made the BJD forego its third seat. As a result, BJP got Vaishnaw elected unopposed on its own ticket. Reportedly, both Modi and Shah knew him since his days in Vajpayee’s office, and had marked him out for a bigger role.
Therefore, it may on the surface seem surprising that his numbers and his wife’s phone number also appear in the leaked records. Two of his phone numbers and one that is being used by his wife were marked as potential targets in mid-2017, according to the leaked data.
This was when Vaishnaw headed two companies that he had formed. After resigning from the the IAS in 2010, he finished business school and worked in the corporate sector – in GE and Siemens – until 2012. Then he headed the companies that he, along with Dinesh Kumar Mittal, had created – Three Tee Auto Logistics Private Limited and Vee Gee Auto Components Private Limited. While Three Tee operated out of Modi’s home state Gujarat, the latter has a factory unit in Faridabad, Haryana.
In 2017, however, he ceased to be a director of the Three Tee Auto Logistics, where he is still a shareholder. His wife continues to be a director in it. At the 2017 edition of the Vibrant Gujarat summit, the Indian Express reported, his company decided to invest in Halol and Panchmahal districts.
The same year, the 50-year-old minister was nominated to the board of Thriveni Pellets Pvt Ltd headed by Odisha-based industrialist of Tamil origin B. Prabhakaran. His nomination to the board of this company had courted controversy as Prabhakaran was named in the 2014 M.B Shah Commission as one of the beneficiaries of a massive mining scam in Odisha. According to the records of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Vaishnaw is named a director in nine companies.
The Wire sent out an email informing Vaishanaw of his selection as a possible candidate for surveillance and asked him for a comment. The story will be updated if and when he responds.
Irani’s controversial appointment noticed?
Apart from the two Union ministers, the phone numbers of Sanjay Kachroo, his father and his minor son also appear in the leaked data. A corporate executive, Kachroo was chosen by then human resource development minister Smriti Irani as her officer on special duty (OSD) in 2014 but he never got formally appointed.
Their phone numbers continue to appear in the leaked records for a sizeable part of 2018.
Kachroo’s interim appointment as an OSD in Irani’s ministry was examined by the PMO, after his controversial role in appointments came to the fore on social media. His appointment, unlike OSDs of other ministries, had reportedly not been approved by the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet (ACC). As a result, he could never get a seat in the ministry. The Economic Times had then reported that there was alarm over Kachroo’s appointment when “the intelligence bureau produced a scathing report” on him. BJP sources had then told the media that one of the reasons Irani was shifted to the supposedly lightweight textiles ministry in 2016 was her impulse to unilaterally take decisions without consultation.
Kachroo’s appointment had also rubbed the RSS the wrong way, claimed some sources who thought “power brokers” were being preferred over dedicated Sangh workers. Kachroo, however, is still considered an integral part of Irani’s coterie.
A range of phone numbers belonging to people who are associated with the Sangh parivar appear in the records. These include Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an ardent critic of the prime minister, whose phone number was potentially targeted for surveillance throughout 2018.
Former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s personal secretary Pradeep Awasthi’s phone number was also marked as a possible candidate for surveillance for most part of early 2018, months ahead of the state assembly polls in December 2018. It is widely known that Scindia and BJP’s central leadership have often been at odds. In the run-up to the assembly polls, her tiff with the central leadership had become apparent.
The state unit of the BJP was split, anti-incumbency against Scindia’s government was extremely high and the central leadership was mulling over whether to project Scindia, a leader with a penchant for rebellion, as the chief ministerial face or not. She was eventually projected as the top leader of the party, but political analysts made much of the fact that she barely got any help from from Amit Shah, then the BJP president, in her campaign.