The ‘Snoopgate’ inquiry commission imbroglio has finally ended as it had become apparent over the past few days it would. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh instructing the law and home ministries to drop the exercise and the Centre’s subsequently informing the Supreme Court that there would be no inquiry, the UPA dispensation has been left red-faced — and it has no one but itself to blame. The scramble to find a judge to head up the commission after months of inaction could only have had one interpretation. The BJP hasn’t been shy about making it, and loudly. The Gujarat government’s own commission, meanwhile, is unlikely to produce any real results. The matter extends beyond the Centre’s opportunism and the tussle for the political and ethical high ground. The entire affair has underscored the problems inherent in the way inquiry commissions have been used and abused by successive administrations.
The raison d’etre of such commissions is the need for an impartial body to oversee and coordinate multiple investigations linked to a specific issue. Unfortunately, that is only half the story. The Inquiry of Commissions Act, 1952, doesn’t make the reports produced by a commission binding upon the government in any way. That has turned such bodies into low-cost solutions for administrations looking to massage public perception; by setting up a commission, they can send out a message that they are being proactive while retaining the ability to bury the eventual report if it should prove to be embarrassing. In other words, all gain with none of the pain. And to further stack the deck, inquiry commissions are often handicapped by inadequate resources, ensuring investigations protracted enough that the central issue has lost political heft by the time the report is finally produced.
The judicial commission appointed by the Maharashtra government to look into the Adarsh housing society scam is a prime example of this. When the report — one that indicted four former chief ministers as well as top bureaucrats – was submitted after more than two years, the government refused to table it in the assembly. And when it was finally compelled to do so by the Bombay High Court, it did so on the last day of the 2013 winter session, leaving no time for discussion — then proceeded to reject the report. Subsequent corrective measures were half-hearted at best. Other high profile commissions have fared no better. The Liberhan Commission, instituted to investigate the Babri Masjid demolition, needed 48 extensions and 17 years to submit a report — one that eventually had little effect. The Srikrishna Commission, appointed to investigate the Bombay riots, had its report rejected by the Maharashtra government. The two Nanavati Commissions looking into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots have followed similar trajectories; the former’s report prompted a brief round of public accusations and counter-accusations but little else, while the latter has yet to be completed.
It’s past time the entire framework was revamped. As matters stand, commission reports, even if accepted and acted upon, only serve as a prelude of sorts, followed by investigative agencies doing the actual work of filing chargesheets and conducting their own investigations. If commissions were given teeth — via the reports functioning as initial chargesheets with the agencies to file supplementary chargesheets — they would no longer be painless solutions for administrations unwilling to take real action. And that in turn would cut down on their misuse — in the Snoopgate affair, for instance, where a regular investigation would have served far better than a commission.