Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's remarks at Cambridge University that he was under surveillance triggered a political slugfest on Friday with the BJP accusing him of maligning India on foreign soil and the Congress hitting back by citing instances of Prime Minister Narendra Modi raking up internal politics abroad.
Gandhi, who is a visiting fellow of the Cambridge Judge Business School, during a lecture 'Learning to Listen in the 21st Century' on Tuesday evening said Indian democracy is under attack and several politicians, including himself, are under surveillance.
Indian democracy is a public good. At least 50% of the people who live in a democratic space live in India. Therefore, preserving the Indian democracy means defending the democratic structure on the planet.— Congress (@INCIndia) March 3, 2023
:Sh. @RahulGandhi at Cambridge
Full video here: https://t.co/kcK9KQyDkCpic.twitter.com/D3EO9NuZIq
Referring to the controversial Pegasus snooping issue, Gandhi alleged that the Israeli spyware was installed on the phones of a large number of politicians, including him.
"I, myself, had Pegasus on my phone. A large number of politicians have Pegasus on their phones. I've been called by intelligence officers who say please be careful what you say on the phone because we are sort of recording this stuff. So, this is a constant pressure that we feel," the 52-year-old former Congress chief claimed at the lecture, a video recording of which was posted on Twitter by Congress leader Sam Pitroda, ex-adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
How did the BJP react?
Reacting to the remarks, Union Minister Anurag Thakur hit out at Gandhi over his claims of being under surveillance by intelligence agencies and accused him of maligning India on foreign soil after facing successive electoral setbacks. "Pegasus is not in Rahul Gandhi's phone but in his mind," he said.
Thakur wondered what prevented Gandhi and other Congress leaders from submitting their phones to a Supreme Court-appointed technical committee that probed the Pegasus snooping issue.
"We can understand his hatred towards the prime minister, but the conspiracy to malign the country on foreign soil with the help of foreign friends raises questions on the agenda of the Congress," the information and broadcasting minister told reporters here.
Thakur said Gandhi was aware of the electoral rout the Congress was facing in the assembly elections and had resorted to levelling allegations from foreign soil.
"Once again, the Congress lost in the elections but their bankruptcy was evident when they lost no opportunity to malign India from foreign soil," he said.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also hit out at Gandhi, calling his speech a "brazen attempt to denigrate India" on foreign soil in the "guise of targeting" the PM.
In a series of tweets, the BJP leader took on the statements made by Rahul Gandhi and claimed that those were not based on facts.
"First foreign agents target us! Then our own targets us on a foreign land!" Sarma wrote on the micro-blogging site.
He maintained that Gandhi's speech at Cambridge was "nothing but a brazen attempt to denigrate our country on foreign soil in the guise of targeting Adarniya PM Shri @narendramodi ji".
First foreign agents target us!— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 3, 2023
Then our own targets us on a foreign land!
Rahul Gandhi’s speech at Cambridge was nothing but a brazen attempt to denigrate our country on foreign soil in the guise of targeting Adarniya PM Shri @narendramodi ji.
Taking on Gandhi's purported statement that "Indian democracy is under threat because he can't freely express himself", Sarma wrote: "FACT: He travelled 4,000 km in his yatra incident-free under the protection provided by Modi Govt. Do we need to remind him how yatras led by BJP leaders were sabotaged when Cong was in power?"
Rahul says Indian democracy is under threat because he can't freely express himself.— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 3, 2023
FACT: He travelled 4,000 km in his yatra incident-free under the protection provided by Modi Govt. Do we need to remind him how yatras led by BJP leaders were sabotaged when Cong was in power?
Referring to Gandhi claiming that spyware Pegasus was found on his phone and an "officer" warned him regarding it, the CM maintained that the Congress MP refused to submit his phone for investigation when Supreme Court asked for it.
"Following extensive investigation, SC concluded that there was no evidence of Pegasus," he added.
Stating that Gandhi has claimed that "India's minorities are unsafe and treated like second class citizens", Sarma wrote: "FACT: Since May 2014, communal violence in India has been the lowest ever and prosperity of minority families the highest ever. Many minority leaders have reposed their faith in Modi Govt."
Taking on Gandhi for his apparent praise of China as an aspiring superpower, citing Belt and Road initiative (BRI) as an example, Sarma retorted: "FACT: BRI is solely responsible for the debt crisis facing several countries today."
Claiming that Gandhi has admitted that he is fascinated by China and Communist party members have shaped his thoughts, Sarma said, "Such rich praise for the Chinese is understandable. Gandhi family is trying to pay off its debts for the donations they took from them!"
The leader from the Northeast also took a swipe at Gandhi over his comments on Kashmir militants and Pulwama attack
"Rahul says in Kashmir militants saw him, but he knew they wouldn't target him. Why was this not reported to security agencies? Was there some understanding Cong had with these militants to protect Rahul?" Sarma questioned the Congress and its top leader.
Rahul says in Kashmir militants saw him, but he knew they wouldn’t target him.— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 3, 2023
Why was this not reported to security agencies? Was there some understanding Cong had with these militants to protect Rahul? pic.twitter.com/muUYF35p5g
He maintained that Gandhi's description of the Pulwama attack as a "car bomb that killed 40 soldiers" was an insult to the jawans and questioned why he didn't name Pakistan as being behind the incident.
"How dare he insult our jawans? It wasn't a bomb sir, but a terror attack. No surprises that he refused to name Pakistan behind Pulwama attack. Is this part of the understanding Cong had with militants?" Sarma wrote.
Rahul described the Pulwama attack as a “car bomb that killed 40 soldiers”.— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 3, 2023
How dare he insult our jawans? It wasn’t a bomb sir, but a terror attack. No surprises that he refused to name Pakistan behind Pulwama attack. Is this part of the understanding Cong had with militants? pic.twitter.com/1OsGiMSrAh
Hitting back at Thakur and the BJP for its criticism of Gandhi, the Congress cited instances of Prime Minister Modi going abroad and allegedly raising internal politics and criticising the Congress.
"I have seen those foolish statements given by Anurag 'Golimaaro' Thakur," Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said in an apparent reference to the 'Golimaro' slogans purportedly raised at a public meeting of Thakur last year.
She urged the information and broadcasting minister him to listen to Gandhi's full lecture.
On BJP's criticism that Gandhi was "maligning" the country from foreign soil, Shrinate said the kind of statements Modi had made abroad on internal politics and against the leading Opposition party of the country, if those are recounted then the BJP will have no place to hide.
If they listen to Rahul Gandhi's lecture, they would get to know that he has talked about democracy and how the media, judiciary and the Opposition are intimidated and how it is important for agencies to remain impartial, she said.
"He (Gandhi) has talked about strengthening democracy. Those who give statements of 'Golimaaro' from stage and become cabinet minister from minister of state, they can never understand the meaning of these remarks," she said.
Congress's head of media and publicity department Pawan Khera said the party would like to advise the BJP that they should stop such activities which are shameful to even discuss.
"So if they stop doing such activities, we will stop discussing them. There is an allegation on you (BJP) took the help of Israel to snoop into the phones of Opposition and your own leaders. They don't feel ashamed of that, but if it is discussed they feel shame," he said.
The BJP thinks that England will not find out about their raid on BBC if the Congress does not discuss it, he said.
"We are living in a different era we are not living in the 17th or 18th century where news travelled at the speed of a camel cart or at the speed of a pigeon. Now if I am talking to you anybody sitting in Papua New Guinea can hear me out," Khera said.
Earlier, the BJP made light of Rahul Gandhi's allegation that he was being snooped upon, saying the Congress leader was "hallucinating" and makes such claims as he wants to create headlines wherever he goes.
"What we can say for Rahul Gandhi's hallucinations. If he makes his (Congress) MoU with China public, we will be interested and people of India will also like to know. Who is interested in his telephonic conversations," BJP spokesperson Tom Vadakkan told reporters.
Vadakkan noted that the Supreme Court has closed the Pegasus matter.
(With PTI Inputs)