By constituting a commission to probe the Pegasus scandal on Monday (July 26), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sent across an astute political message not only to the BJP but also to her opposition allies.
Mamata timed the move, the first by any state government, barely a few hours before taking off for New Delhi to push her national ambition amidst trending of #Ab Ki Baar Didi Sarkar on social media.
The probe panel comprising retired Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur and former Calcutta high court chief justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya will look into allegations of snooping on people from Bengal using Israeli spyware Pegasus.
Trinamool Congrerss’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor and its national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee, who is also the chief minister’s nephew, are reportedly on the list of potential targets of Pegasus-assisted spying.
The TMC even claimed that Mamata Banerjee too was snooped ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.
The opinion may be divided over the legal efficacy of the commission, but there is no denying that the decision to probe the snooping charges is a political masterstroke that aims at more than one target.
The two-member panel has been formed under Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. The Act empowers both the Centre as well as states to institute an inquiry commission.
Many legal experts, including former SC judge Justice A K Ganguly, expressed doubt over the validity of the probe though the commission has been constituted reportedly after consulting multiple legal experts, including Justice Lokur, who was reportedly consulted thrice.
The 12-point terms of reference for the commission includes finding out whether any interception took place and to identify the state and non-state actors, if any, behind it; determine the mechanism used for the hacking; examine the information collected or used.
The panel has been asked to submit its report within six months.
A senior TMC leader with a legal background admitted that it will be difficult to take the probe to its logical conclusion without the cooperation from the Union government, particularly as the main accused is a foreign company.
The leader, who refused to be named, further said the TMC government was aware that even if the probe was completed, the Centre would not be bound to accept the report.
By initiating the probe by two reputed judges, Mamata Banerjee, who in the past accused the Centre of infringing on the rights of the states, turned the table on New Delhi by doing something that should have been done, ideally, by the Union government.
“It was a clear flexing of state power. Her (Mamata’s) move demonstrated that the state too is a Constitutional entity with commensurate power to niggle the Centre,” said Nirmalya Banerjee, a political commentator and author.
“We need to wake up those who are reluctant to wake up…We were hoping that the Centre would initiate a SC-monitored probe. But since the Centre did not do it, we decided to constitute a two-member commission,” the chief minister had said while announcing her government’s decision.
The TMC supremo had earlier urged the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognisance of the matter alleging that the BJP-led government at the Centre was destroying the democratic fabric of the country by indulging in snooping.
The formal notification about the formation of the commission issued by state home secretary B P Gopalika said the decision was taken keeping in mind reports about widespread phone-tapping with sophisticated tools since 2017, which could potentially breach State secrets, jeopardise law and order in the state and violate privacy.
“……reported interception may have landed in the hands of state and/ or non-state actors, as being currently reported, which if found to be true can lead to a total breakdown of public order of the state and the same is serious criminal offence,” the notification said.
The notification clearly emphasised on the security angle to imply that the Centre has been apathetic towards a serious security issue, observed Nirmalya Banerjee.
Mamata’s move has an underlying message for the opposition. By trying to checkmate Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the snooping issue, the TMC leader is positioning herself as the main challenger to the BJP strongman.
During her five-day stay in the national capital, the TMC chief will be meeting cross sections of opposition leaders including Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar to formulate a broad non-BJP alliance.
TMC leaders starting a new hashtag trending on Twitter claiming ‘Ab ki baar Didi ki Sarkar’ (This time it is Didi’s government), have made it clear that they want their party supremo to lead the opposition alliance.
TMC MPs too were instructed before the commencement of the monsoon session of Parliament to play the role of principal opposition in the house on all key national issues.
Mamata has signalled that she is the one leading the opposition charge. Though it is to be seen if she can convince other opposition leaders about her prowess.