BJP members stall panel meet on Pegasus, vote ends impasse

Shashi Tharoor. File photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

BJP members of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology on Wednesday attempted to stall a discussion on data security and privacy, which was being held in the backdrop of the recent Pegasus malware breach on the WhatsApp application of many Indian citizens including a couple of Opposition leaders.

The discussion was finally initiated only after the very subject of the meeting, ‘Citizens’ data security and privacy’, was voted upon. Only 25 of the panel’s 31 members attended the meeting, of which 12 voted against initiating the meeting, while 12 voted in favour. The final deciding vote was cast by committee chairperson Shashi Tharoor of the Congress.

The officials who were to depose before the committee were kept waiting outside the door. Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla had to leave for another commitment before the standing committee’s meeting could even begin, a member said.

The panel, which met at 3:00 p.m., found itself deadlocked for two hours as BJP members led by Nishikant Dubey from Jharkhand, Bengaluru’s L.S. Tejasvi and former minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore argued that the subject was beyond the ambit of the committee. They contended that the panel could not summon officials of the Department of Atomic Energy or Home Ministry since these departments don’t come under the committee’s purview.

Opposition MPs, including the Congress’s Karti Chidambaram from Tamil Nadu and the TMC’s Mahua Moitra, led by Mr. Tharoor argued that the agenda of the meeting had been circulated two weeks in advance and was vetted by the Lok Sabha secretariat. Also, bureaucrats from the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) would not have come for the meeting if it was illegal for the committee to summon them, these MPs contended.

“The impasse was unprecedented,” one of the committee members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “No one knew what are the rules if members oppose the very subject of the meeting. Secretariat officials were summoned and rule books were pulled out. At the end it was decided to cast a vote on the issue,” the member added.

The panel finally began its deliberations on the subject of the meeting at 5:00 p.m. The officials from Department of Atomic Energy and Kudankulam nuclear plant in a candid admission said that their reaction to the malware infection at the nuclear plant was slower. “They said that the malware infection was only found in the administrative side of the plant’s operations. They also informed that a new protocol had been placed to ensure faster reaction and higher level of cybersecurity,” another member said.

The Home Ministry and MEITY officials were grilled repeatedly by the Opposition members, sources said. They were asked about who the 121 people who had been affected in India by the Pegasus spyware were and whether the ministries had reached out to any of the victims. MPs also sought to know if authorities had tracked down NSO, the Israel-based firm which had developed the Pegasus software. Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the officials did not provide any clear answers to most of these questions.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 3:15:43 AM |

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