Often a ruse resorted to by governments to quieten rumblings set off by politically embarrassing controversies, the appointment of commissions of inquiry inspire little confidence among the public. There is a general perception that these commissions toe the line of the regime that appoints them. On the legal side, they can only come up with fact-finding reports that need not be accepted by the government of the day. In this backdrop, the ongoing bickering between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party over the UPA government’s apparent desire to appoint a judge to head a commission to inquire into the Gujarat surveillance case is only of propaganda value. An inquiry ordered by a regime at the fag end of its tenure — especially after four-fifths of the general election is over — against the principal leader of the rival political formation will command little credibility. Secondly, the commission itself may not take off in the two weeks left for counting to take place. It needs a presiding officer and a secretariat, and must be given time to make a list of people to whom statutory notices will have to be sent. If the same party or alliance is returned to power, the process may continue, but otherwise it may make little headway after the elections.

BJP leaders have said that even though the decision to order a judicial inquiry was made in December 2013, the government has been unable to find a judge to head the panel. Their claims that no judge is likely to take up the matter at this stage of the electoral process, and that the next regime will review such decisions, have added to the political colour the episode has taken. The government’s stand that it has the power to name the head of the panel anytime before May 16, when counting is due to begin, ought to be backed by an explanation for the delay in appointing the commission. There can be no dispute that the matter to be probed represents a serious political, legal and moral issue. And that the probe ordered earlier by the Gujarat government also lacks credibility as it has made little headway. The only thing that can be said with any moral and legal certainty is that the parties should avoid giving the impression that they are using the issue to score political points. The main questions — why and on whose orders a young woman was kept under surveillance both within Gujarat and outside, whether it was done with her consent and on a request from her father, and whether the legal provisions providing safeguards against indiscriminate telephone tapping were complied with — remain unanswered. The whiff of political controversy should not take public attention away from the issues of privacy and state surveillance on private citizens that this episode has raised.

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