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New Delhi: In 2018, after two years of largely smooth sailing, the Narendra Modi government’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft started to come under public scrutiny.
A legal challenge was mounted before the Supreme Court. Media publications, both Indian and French, started asking serious questions about Dassault Aviation’s offset partners in India. And even former French president Francois Hollande’s remarks on how one particular corporate partner was chosen stirred up a storm.
It was in this this hectic year for the company at the centre of this storm, The Wire can confirm, that phone numbers that have been used by Anil Ambani and one other official of the Reliance ADA Group were added to the leaked list that was analysed by media partners of the Pegasus Project consortium.
The mere presence of a number on this list does not imply the smartphone connected to it was successfully snooped upon – a conclusion that can only be established by conducting digital forensics on the device’s data – but the consortium has reason to believe that it represents a person of interest for an unknown client of the NSO Group.
In past statements, the NSO Group has disputed this list, saying it has no relevance to the company or its military-grade spyware product Pegasus. Forensic analysis conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab for over 60 phones on this list – which primarily includes numbers clustered in countries that experts say have had an active Pegasus operator in the past – found traces of the spyware on over half, while the results of a majority of other cases were inconclusive on account of them being Android devices.
Apart from Ambani, the other company official whose numbers appear on the list include corporate communications chief Tony Jesudasan, as well as Jesudasan’s wife.
The Wire, however, could not confirm if Ambani is still using the number that he was in 2018, which is when it was added to the list. A lack of response from the company also ruled out the ability to ask if they would consent to participating in the Pegasus Project’s digital forensics process.
Jesudasan, considered a trouble-shooter for Ambani’s empire in matters of regulatory policy and the media, appeared on the list in 2018.
From mid-2018, there were several difficult periods for the company: this includes the Hollande controversy and tense apex court hearings.
The Supreme Court judgment, delivered in December 2018 by a bench headed by the-then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, dismissed a batch of petitions that called for a probe into the deal – which is now, ironically, the subject of a criminal investigation in France.
The Wire reached out to the company, giving them an opportunity to deny if the numbers listed belonged to the officials. No response was received until the time of going to press and this story will be updated if and when a response is received.
While it is impossible to suggest that the presence of Ambani and other company officials in the database is solely linked to their defence efforts, an examination of other key clusters of numbers show an all-encompassing view that the unknown NSO client also extended to other key parts of the defence industry, particularly aerospace
For instance, the number for Dassault Aviation’s representative in India, Venkata Rao Posina, former Saab India head Inderjit Sial and Boeing India boss Pratyush Kumar all appear in the leaked database at different periods of time in 2018 and 2019. Sial is now the India and Asia-Pacific head of the US defence company Textron.
In 2018, media reports noted that Posina developed a reputation for ferociously defending the Rafale deal, to the point of apparently getting into verbal altercations with journalists on Twitter.
The number of Harmanjit Nagi, head of the French firm energy EDF, is also in the leaked database, a significant choice given that he was a member of Emmanuel Macron’s official delegation during the French president’s visit to India during this period.
The confirmed targeting with Pegasus of former Indian Express associate editor Sushant Singh – who was extensively covering the Rafale controversy – also implies a certain focus on the defence sector and perhaps the aircraft deal, which was a political hot potato at the time. Singh was the reporter who broke the story of an Anil Ambani company helping to finance a film project involving Julie Gayet, the partner of Hollande.
Sial, who quit Saab shortly after the MMRCA contract was awarded to Rafale in 2013, told The Wire that one of the reasons some government agency might have been interested in putting him under surveillance was because he had been in the running for the top job at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited during the period his number figures in the leaked database.
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.