The current election campaign has seen a resurgence of the "Snoop-gate" controversy. In an election which it is expected to lose abysmally, the Congress has used the scandal as ammunition against Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, who is accused of ordering the illegal surveillance of a young woman architect in Gujarat.
To maximise the possible impact of the allegation, the Congress announced that it would appoint a judge to investigate the charges, provoking full-throated censure from not just the BJP but its own allies, who said a government in "its dying days" does not have the authority to make an appointment as hefty as this one.
The political noise over Snoop-gate has allowed attention to divert from the serious questions that the scandal raised, and which remain unanswered.
First, a quick recap of Snoop-gate. The controversy has its genesis in the CBI's probe into another possible abuse of state power by the Gujarat government: the alleged fake encounters that were carried out by Gujarat's Anti-Terror Squad (ATS). Several top police officers are now in jail on charges that include murder, criminal conspiracy and wrongful confinement.
One of them, GL Singhal, had begun to secretly tape conversations with his political masters. Singhal handed over one such recording last year to the CBI - he alleged it contained a conversation between him and Amit Shah, then Gujarat's Minister of State for Home.
In November 2013, two websites Gulail and Cobrapost aired the conversations, in which Amit Shah via Singhal appears to be monitoring the ATS's surveillance of the movements of a young woman at the behest of a 'Saheb'. The woman's phone was allegedly tapped; she was also tailed.
The BJP has accepted that the young woman was placed under surveillance, but emphasizes it was done with her knowledge and for her own security at the behest of her father, who claimed an old association with Narendra Modi. Unanswered Question 1: Was the security provided disproportionate to the alleged 'threat'?
A month after the taped conversations were aired, a letter said to be from the woman's father, an Ahmedabad-based businessman was leaked to the media. (The letter's authenticity itself seemed in doubt: it was undated and had no address or signature. It was released to the media by BJP sources.) In the letter, the father says he asked for protection for the young woman since she was staying in a hotel in Ahmedabad and had to travel to the hospital to visit her ailing mother. But it's unclear why travel between a hotel and a hospital (in a supposedly safe city like Ahmedabad) needed the covert supervision of round-the-clock teams from Gujarat's ATS, the Ahmedabad city police and even the state's Intelligence Bureau, with the state's Home Minister personally monitoring the entire process ! Perhaps aware of the flimsy nature of the first letter, a second letter was released which had the father's signature, a date and an address, and which was addressed to both the National and state's Women's Commissions, asking them not to probe the issue. In this letter, no reason for the surveillance was cited. No explanation has been given for the discrepancy between the first and second letter. Unanswered Question 2 : If the young woman was aware of the surveillance, why were the 'snoopers' afraid she might give them the slip?
In his second letter, the father says 'my daughter was fully aware of all types of help rendered by the state machinery', a claim repeated by BJP spokespersons. But the alleged conversations - NDTV cannot verify their authenticity - reveal an anxiety that the woman may slip away from the surveillance. On more than one occasion, the voice that resembles that of Amit Shah is heard telling Singhal to ensure that the woman 'does not escape', and that she is 'very clever' . At one point he says she might make calls from the PCO or a phone booth at the airport to avoid phone intercepts. In another instance, Shah asks Singhal which flight she is taking to Ahmedabad. As Ashish Khetan of Gulail says, "If you are providing protection to a person then you will call directly and you will ask that person that whether you are coming by 8:40 flight or 6:20 flight. But that's not clearly the case. They are going through flight schedules and passenger list then trying to figure out that whether she is coming by 6:20 Indigo flight or 8:40 Spice Jet flight." Unanswered Question 3: Is there any proof that her father had a prior association with Narendra Modi?
In his letter, the father says he 'made an oral request to Hon'ble Chief Minister.. with whom I had a long standing relationship spread over two decades'. But Pradeep Sharma, a Gujarat-cadre IAS officer who was also placed under surveillance, claims he introduced the young woman to Narendra Modi at a January 2004 function in Bhuj. The woman (an architect) had designed a park which the Chief Minister inaugurated. According to Sharma, that was the beginning of the contact between the young woman and her family and Mr Modi. Separately, BJP sources had claimed her father knew Modi through an old RSS link. But Pravin Maniyar, a veteran RSS leader from the Kutch region, where the woman's family was initially based, told NDTV that he had no recollection of anyone in the RSS with the architect's father's name. Unanswered Question 4: Why has Gujarat government not produced evidence that the surveillance was within the law?
The Supreme Court has laid down clear guidelines on phone taps: in the case of a state government, for any number that it wants tapped, the police has to write to the state 's Home Secretary, who in turn will seek sanction from the Chief Secretary, after which a telecom company is ordered in writing to allow investigators to listen in and record conversations. But to date, the Gujarat government has not produced evidence as to whether due process was followed to get sanction for the phone taps. In the past, officials who NDTV tried to contact were evasive. SK Saikia, who was police commissioner in Ahmedabad during the period of snooping, says had no knowledge of the operation. He said if it was done as by the law, he would have known. Balwant Singh, the then former Additional Chief Secretary Home (the officer meant to sanction the phone taps), now the State's Information Officer, said he had no recollection of this particular case. Even if the state government produces proof, there is a possibility that the surveillance might be deemed illegal. GK Pillai, former Union Home Secretary, says sanction for phone taps cannot be given in this sort of case. "It's for national security, internal security, terrorist financing, where there is large scale deviation of taxes - phones are tapped for these particular purposes only."
The UPA's clumsy last-ditch attempts to gain political capital from Snoop-gate has only allowed the BJP to deflect attention from the core charges. That, and the possibility of a change of regime, makes any answers to the unanswered questions of Snoop-gate highly unlikely. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.