Chairman of the parliamentary panel on information technology Shashi Tharoor on Sunday said BJP members "disrupted" the committee's meeting on July 28 as they did not want the Pegasus allegations to be discussed and the officials who were to testify "appear to have been instructed not to attend", but expressed hope the snooping issue would be taken up by the panel going forward.
Tharoor, who has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla to take action over ministry officials not attending the panel meet, also asserted that the actions of the three officials making "last-minute excuses" to skip the meeting were a "grievous assault" on such panels' prerogatives to summon witnesses.
In an interview with PTI, the Congress leader hit back at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his remarks that the opposition was insulting Parliament, saying the government’s refusal to be answerable in any way, shape or form on an issue of national and international importance, has made a "mockery of democracy and of the ordinary Indians the government claims to represent".
Avoiding discussion and accountability is the real insult to Parliament, the former Union minister and Thiruvananthapuram MP asserted.
Asked if going forward, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology will be able to take up the Pegasus snooping issue, Tharoor said for two years now the IT committee has been conducting discussions on "citizens' data privacy and security and cyber security, topics that also featured in its agenda under the previous chairman, BJP's Anurag Thakur.
The Pegasus issue therefore clearly falls under the purview of the IT committee and so it is only expected that its members will ask questions about it when these topics arise, he said.
"It is no secret that the Committee's meeting on its established agenda was disrupted by BJP members who did not want Pegasus to be discussed. It was unprecedented for 10 members to attend and to refuse to sign the register in order to deny the committee a quorum," Tharoor said.
The panel was to hold a meeting on July 28 during which several issues including the Pegasus snooping allegations were expected to be discussed. It had also summoned officials from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Communications (Department of Telecommunications) on the subject ‘Citizens data security and privacy’.
However, the meeting could not take place as the BJP members of the panel did not sign the attendance register, even though they were present in the meeting room, leading to a lack of quorum.
E-mail communications were received by the committee branch of the secretariat on July 28 afternoon from the three ministries/department that their representatives would not be able to appear before the committee due to Parliament-related work.
"For good measure, the three officials who were to testify that day appear to have been instructed not to attend, making last-minute excuses, which is a grievous assault on the prerogatives of parliamentary committees to summon witnesses," Tharoor said.
Asserting that accountability to Parliament is a cornerstone of democracy, Tharoor alleged that it is increasingly being tossed aside in the current regime’s "headlong rush to autocracy".
"Despite this disappointing approach, I am hopeful that we will be able to take up the question going forward,” he said.
Asked whether a joint parliamentary committee would be more suited to take up the Pegasus matter, Tharoor said, "I am not sure what a JPC can do that the IT Committee cannot. Nonetheless, I proposed from the start that what we really need is a Supreme Court-monitored inquiry headed by a serving or recently retired judge to conduct a fair, impartial and thorough investigation of the Pegasus issue."
The judiciary has powers, and a degree of immunity from politics, that would make it better suited than a committee of MPs to explore all aspects of the Pegasus question, Tharoor argued.
An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers, including that of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union ministers Prahlad Singh Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw, businessman Anil Ambani, and at least 40 journalists, were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Israeli firm NSO Group's Pegasus spyware.
On comparisons of the Pegasus snooping row with the Watergate scandal that rocked Richard Nixon's US presidency in the 1970s, Tharoor said though the parallels between the two episodes are many, the significant difference is precisely in the consequences it has had for the respective regimes that were in power when these events unfolded.
"Whereas the US Congress’ investigation of Watergate led to the resignation of president Nixon himself, our Parliament has been denied even a discussion of the issue, barring the tepid statement by the new IT minister who was himself on the list of those who were potentially targeted using Pegasus on the floor of the House," Tharoor said.
He said Pegasus is an issue that, given its grave implications for the country’s internal security and individual liberties, should have been addressed by either the home minister or the PM himself.
Tharoor said the opposition's hopes rest with the Supreme Court, which is to hear the matter on Tuesday.