M Venkatesh, 58, has kept his mobile off since 21 July, the day his boss, former Chief Minister of Karnataka and Congress leader Siddaramaiah, held a press meet in New Delhi, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Union government of unleashing the Israeli spyware Pegasus on him.
Venkatesh was in Delhi with Siddaramaiah on the day, listening keenly as the press was told, 'Pegasus was used to tap the phone of Venkatesh, who has been my PA for the past 27 years'.
Siddaramaiah’s statement was based on a report published by a group of media organisations across the world, which revealed that just before the fall of the Janata Dal (Secular) - Congress alliance in Karnataka in July 2019, the mobile phones of Personal Assistants (PAs) to JD(S) Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, Deputy-Chief Minister G Parameshwara and Siddaramaiah, may have been tapped using Pegasus, the spyware sold by Israeli company NSO.
The company claims to sell spyware only to 'vetted governments', indicating that the BJP-led Union government could have been a customer.
Ventakesh spoke to The Quint in an exclusive interview, revealing what could have helped the 'snooper' spyware when they allegedly tapped his phone. “I did not know that I was being spied on. And I was with him (Siddaramaiah) all the time on those days,” he said.
Operation Lotus in Karnataka, could Pegasus have Helped?
In the 2018 Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections the BJP won 104 seats, Congress 80, and JD(S) 36 seats.
As the BJP could not prove its majority in the House, a Congress - JD(S) alliance came to power with Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister.
A year later, the BJP allegedly lured away 17 MLAs from both, Congress and JD(S), to form its own government under BS Yediyurappa.
Venkatesh’s phone number appeared in the Pegasus list right before the commencement of Operation Lotus – a horse-trading exercise allegedly driven by the BJP to win over dissident Congress and JD(S) MLAs. Currently, a BJP government led by Yediyurappa is in power in Karnataka.
Venkatesh told The Quint that Siddaramaiah was the chairman of coordination committee of Congress - JD(S) alliance when the snoop allegedly happened. The former CM, who does not keep a cell phone of his own, was using Venkatesh’s number and the numbers of other PAs for communication, Venkatesh confirmed. Meaning, confidential information about the terms of the alliance could have been communicated through Venkatesh’s number.
Venkatesh hinted that while he does not remember the content of phone calls that he had received at the time on behalf of his boss Siddaramaiah, they were important phone calls.
He could vouch for the fact that the alleged 'snoop' could have revealed confidential information to unintended sources.
How Invasive was the Alleged Snoop?
Venkatesh has been by Siddaramaiah’s aide since the time the latter was in JD(S). “I was 33-years-old at the time. I have never left his side since then,” he said. Throughout Siddaramaiah’s stint in the Janata Parivar and his two terms as deputy chief minister of Karnataka, and his stint in 2013 as chief minister of Karnataka, Venkatesh was a close confidant.
The Congress leader would not have thought twice before discussing matters of great importance in front of him or through his phone, close associates of Siddaramaiah have told The Quint.
The Pegasus snoop would have worked very well, if it was used as has been alleged, because Ventakesh spends most of his waking hours with Siddaramaiah.
“I visit his official residence and his office along with him. I do official paperwork for him and I sit in on discussions to take notes,” he confirmed.
In what would constitute a deliberate invasion of his personal and political life, Pegasus would have had access to phone conversations from Siddaramaiah’s official residence at East Kumara Park 1, Bengaluru and his office in Vidhana Saudha.
According to sources, several meetings about the future of the Congress - JD(S) alliance and governance matters of the Kumaraswamy government were discussed in these places.
Siddaramaiah, could have made urgent official calls during these meetings using Venkatesh’s phone, he implied.
Meaning, as Venkatesh's day starts at 8 am and ends late at night, Siddaramaiah would have been under alleged surveillance for almost 24 hours a day. For an opposing political party – the BJP in this case – such access would have helped plan political moves better.
'I Was the Only One With Him'
On why he could have been a potential target, Venkatesh said, "When he was the chief minister there were several secretaries with him. But in 2019, I was the only one who was constantly with him." A constant shadow?
Venkatesh was around when people visited Siddaramaiah. "From personal to official, I follow all that he does," he said. Meaning, if you were to find out what Siddaramaiah is up to, Venkatesh would be the man to shadow.
The PA, however, swore that the alleged snoop would not have revealed anything unlawful.
"I have not done anything wrong and neither has sir (Siddaramaiah) who is a humanitarian. There is nothing to be afraid of," he said.
What is of higher concern is the way Pegasus could have been used to topple a democratically elected government in Karnataka.
The BJP would have got an undue advantage through the alleged snoop. While the Congress - JD(S) camp would have not anticipated a coup, the BJP could have easily tracked and acquired prior knowledge about their political play.
As for Venkatesh, what troubles him the most is the attention he has been getting ever since his name went public on 21 July.
'Would Like to Remain in the Background'
Venkatesh does not like the limelight the Pegasus Project has brought into his otherwise quiet life.
A low profile 'background' man, who seldom comes into the limelight, Venkatesh has been at the receiving end of frantic phone calls from journalists and well wishers.
"I am uncomfortable with all the attention. I keep my phone switched off," he said. He, however, hopes to continue to be with Siddaramaiah. "This is my life," he said. Venkatesh was so adamant about keeping a low profile that he refused to share his photographs with The Quint, despite repeated requests.
Meanwhile, the BJP has refuted news articles about the Pegasus snoop even as all fingers point in the party's direction. And Venkatesh hopes he does not figure in another alleged snoop list.
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