By Amulya Ganguli
The Narendra Modi government's decision to set up a commission to inquire into the allegations of snooping by Gujarat's official agencies of a young woman, reportedly at the behest of an unnamed "sahib", will not mark the end of prevailing suspicions and innuendos.
What is more, in its haste to defuse misgivings about the charges, the state government appears to have neglected to take into account the possible effects of its decision.
For instance, what if the commission identifies, or fails to identify, the "sahib". If it does, then the matter will be deeply disconcerting for the chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for the belief is that the "sahib" is none other than the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. The question will then arise as to why such a wide-ranging surveillance by several state agencies, including an anti-terrorism unit, was ordered.
And, if the commission is tight-lipped about the identity, it will only substantiate the suspicion that its purpose was not to find out the reasons for the shadowing of the woman, but to bury the embarrassing issue.
While the outcome of the proposed inquiry lies in the future - the commission has a three-month time limit - there is a belief that the panel may have a different mandate altogether, for its terms of reference do not relate to the issue of tracking a person at all.
Instead, they are, first, to ascertain the genuineness of the audio tapes about the conversations about the surveillance, reportedly between Modi's Man Friday, Amit Shah, and a police officer. There is a hint in this particular scope inquiry of an attempt to shoot the messenger.
Secondly, the commission is to find out whether there has been a violation of the legal procedures relating to the alleged tailing of the woman. This is all right by itself, but it is suspected that the police officer who is involved in the voice-recordings may be asked why he kept it with himself and did not hand it over to his superiors.
Although the voice-recordings are now with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), this line of inquiry appears to be another attempt to dispose of the messenger.
Apart from the legal intricacies, what is patent enough is the murkiness of the entire episode. Its damaging implications for Modi are obvious. Since the matter will be probed not only by the commission but also by the Supreme Court, Modi will be wary of his campaign being suddenly derailed.
As it is, the court is engaged in investigating the various misdemeanours of the Modi government going back to the 2002 riots. There is also a fake encounter case in which Amit Shah is an accused. If, on top of all this, the Snoopgate or Stalkgate probe exposes unsavoury details, the BJP and its prime ministerial aspirant will be in deep trouble.
It is worth recalling that the Modi government's record in the matter of setting up commissions is a dubious one. After the 2002 riots, it had set up a one-man commission under a retired high court judge, K.G. Shah, who had earned a stricture from the Supreme Court on an issue concerning Muslims. The apex court had said that the "finding of the judge is not based on appreciation of evidence, but on imagination".
Following protests, the state government reconstituted the commission into a two-member body, comprising G.T. Nanavati and Shah. But, as its earlier decision showed, the government had little interest in an inquiry which revealed what really happened.
A similar disinclination to find out the truth was evident in the closing of as many as 2,000-odd cases pertaining to the riots on grounds of lack of evidence by a pliant police evidently acting in accordance with orders from above. It was the Supreme Court's intervention which led to the reopening of the cases and the transfer of some of the more horrific ones for trial outside Gujarat - the Best Bakery and Bilkis Bano cases.
It is just as well, therefore, that the apex court is investigating Snoopgate. But what is an occasion of general relief - over the expectation that the surveillance mystery will be impartially investigated - will be a matter of considerable concern for the Modi government, for it cannot be sure whether a Pandora's box will be opened.
In a way, Snoopgate is even more troubling for the state government than the 2002 riots. While the allegation about the latter is that the government was tardy, if not complicit, with regard to the outbreak, which claimed about 1,200 lives according to official estimates and more than 2,000 according to unofficial accounts, Snoopgate points to a gross misuse of official machinery for purposes with disreputable implications.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst)