Legislative logjam

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

Opposition MPs hold placards demanding a JPC probe into the 2G scam, outside Parliament House in New Delhi on December 13. - R.V. MOORTHY

Opposition MPs hold placards demanding a JPC probe into the 2G scam, outside Parliament House in New Delhi on December 13. - R.V. MOORTHY

The government's refusal to agree to a JPC probe into the 2G scam shuts down parliamentary proceedings during the entire winter session.

THE winter session of Parliament that came to an end on December 13 was unprecedented in several respects. There was not a single debate. The session was disrupted throughout the duration of its 23 sittings from November 9. The PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi, using data compiled for all the sessions since the convening of the eighth Lok Sabha (1985), has come out with the disturbing finding that the latest one is the worst among the past 82 sessions. According to the study, the Lok Sabha worked for seven hours and 37 minutes, that is, 5.5 per cent of its available time, while the Rajya Sabha functioned for two hours and 44 minutes, 2.4 per cent of its available time.

The record in terms of the legislative business is equally appalling. Of the 36 Bills the government planned to introduce in winter 2010, only 13 were tabled; of the 35 Bills it planned to pass, only four were passed, without any debate. No private members' business was taken up. The Lok Sabha could hold its Question Hour only twice, with only four starred questions getting oral replies. In the Rajya Sabha, not a single starred question was answered.

The stalemate was caused by the government's stubborn refusal to concede the Opposition's demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the 2G spectrum allocation and other related issues. The government insisted that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was already seized of the issue and that the constitution of a JPC would politicise the matter, besides prolonging the inquiry. The Opposition, however, argued that only a JPC could unravel the many dimensions of the 2G scam.

The PAC is part of the committee system in Parliament and is reconstituted every year. Its main function is to record how the government spent the money granted by Parliament through the Budget. By convention, since 1967, the office of the Chairperson of the PAC is held by the Opposition in order to facilitate free expression of views and criticism of the executive. The PAC consists of not more than 22 members 15 of them elected by the Lok Sabha every year from among its members according to the system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote, and seven elected by the Rajya Sabha in a similar manner. A Minister is not elected to the committee. If, after his/her election to the committee, a member is made a Minister, he/she ceases to be a member of the committee from the date of such appointment. The Speaker chooses the Chairperson of the committee from the 15 Lok Sabha members.

The PAC examines the accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by Parliament for expenditure and considers the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). The Bharatiya Janata Party's senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi is currently the Chairman of the PAC. During the past five years, the PAC met 64 times and tabled 92 reports. According to the PRS Legislative Research, records show that the government accepts 70 per cent of the PAC's recommendations.

The JPC is an ad hoc body, set up for a specific purpose, mainly to investigate an issue and present a report within a specified time frame. Parliament decides the composition and terms of reference of the JPC.

Opposition parties disagree with the government's stand that the PAC is better suited than the JPC to investigate the 2G spectrum allocation and related issues. First, the PAC by its very composition cannot have a Minister, let alone the Prime Minister, on it. The exclusion of Ministers from the PAC's deliberations is aimed at ensuring that the government does not influence its functioning. On very rare occasions, however, a Minister is allowed to appear before a financial committee with the due consent of the committee Chairman and the Lok Sabha Speaker.

Former Lok Sabha Secretary-General P.D.T. Achary says there is a specific directive by the Speaker regarding the appearance of Ministers before financial committees. According to him, the last time a Minister appeared before the PAC was in 1966; it was Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniam. He cites Direction No.99 by the Speaker, which says that a Minister shall not be called before a committee, either to give evidence or for consultation in connection with estimates, or Public Accounts Committee or the Public Undertakings Committee.

In order to resolve the deadlock, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on December 20 that he intended to write to the PAC Chairman that he was ready to appear before the committee. He said he had nothing to hide from the public and was ready to appear before the PAC if it asked him to, even though there was no precedent for this.

Manmohan Singh's claim that his government has initiated multifaceted action against those involved in the scam might be true, but his objections to a JPC probe on the grounds that it could delay the inquiry and politicise the issue are not convincing. The Opposition's demand for a JPC probe may well be politically motivated, but it cannot be considered sinister merely on that count. As a JPC has to submit its report within a specified time, the Prime Minister's concern about the inquiry getting delayed is apparently not valid.

Observers point out that even if the Prime Minister and other Ministers are ready to appear before the PAC, the Speaker and the Chairman may have to justify a departure from the practice of keeping Ministers out of the PAC's deliberations. This, according to them, is easier said than done. There is an essential distinction between the mandates of the PAC and the JPC, and the Prime Minister, in his effort to prove his credentials, appears to have missed this.

The 2G spectrum scam has also thrown up other issues, namely, the unexplained role of corporates in government formation and the nexus between the members of the media, business, bureaucracy and the political parties. Therefore, the Opposition parties are rightly concerned that with its limited mandate, the PAC will not be able to unravel the multidimensional character of the scam.

Manmohan Singh's dramatic offer to face the PAC might have been the result of a growing anxiety within the Congress that the credibility of the ruling coalition will erode further if the JPC issue remains unresolved until the Budget session.

The BJP rejected the Prime Minister's offer, saying only a JPC can probe the many dimensions of the scam. In a retort to Manmohan Singh's remark that like Caesar's wife the Prime Minister should be above suspicion, BJP leader Arun Jaitley argued that if the Prime Minister wanted to be Caesar's wife, he should not choose the forum of inquiry. If the Prime Minister had nothing to hide, then he should not have allowed A. Raja to continue as the Telecom Minister for three years, Jaitley said. The Prime Minister's offer to appear before the PAC considered a masterstroke in Congress circles is well appreciated by Subhash Kashyap, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and a constitutional expert. Blaming both the government and the Opposition for the ugly impasse, Kashyap writes in an article in The Tribune that if the Opposition is anxious to question the Prime Minister and nail him, the Lok Sabha is a more effective and legitimate forum than a JPC as the JPC proceedings will be held in camera.

Kashyap has noted that ad hoc joint committees of both Houses have been constituted from time to time on various matters. As these are also JPCs, he says, it is incorrect to say that the JPC constituted to probe the Bofors scandal in 1987 was the first JPC or that only four JPCs have been formed so far. The nomenclature JPC finds no mention in any constitutional or legal provisions or in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Parliament. The term gained currency only after a JPC was constituted to inquire into the Bofors scandal. It has now come to connote an ad hoc joint committee of both Houses formed to inquire into a specific scandal of financial wrongdoing, he says.

Kashyap disagrees with the general view that the four JPCs in recent history were total failures. A committee can only inquire and make recommendations. It is for Parliament, he says, to discuss them and for the government to accept them and take appropriate action.

The Opposition boycotted the JPC on Bofors on the grounds that it was packed with Congress members. The JPC on Bofors, which was chaired by B. Shankaranand, submitted its report on April 26, 1988, after holding 50 sittings.

The second JPC was formed in 1992 to investigate the stock market scam involving Harshad Mehta and other brokers. It was chaired by former Union Minister and senior Congress leader Ram Niwas Mirdha. It submitted its report on December 21, 1993. The government conceded the demand for the JPC after parliamentary proceedings remained paralysed for two weeks. The third JPC was set up in 2001 to investigate the shares scam involving Ketan Parekh, banks and corporate houses. It was chaired by BJP member Lt.Gen. Prakash Mani Tripathi. It submitted its report on December 19, 2002, after holding 105 sittings. It recommended sweeping changes in stock market regulations.

The fourth JPC was formed to inquire into reports that pesticide residues were found in soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages and to set safety standards. This JPC, headed by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, held 17 sittings and submitted its report on February 4, 2004, confirming that soft drinks did contain pesticides.

It recommended stringent norms for bottled water. The Food Safety and Standard Authority of India was an offshoot of this committee.

Citing instances when the Congress had demanded a JPC probe, Kashyap says political parties demand JPCs when they are in the Opposition and reject such demands when they are in power. He believes that the Opposition parties may be wrong in believing that they will be able to compel the presence of the Prime Minister or other Ministers to present themselves before the JPC. The majority in the committee may overrule such suggestions. Also, under the rules, the question may be referred to the Speaker whose decision shall be final.

According to Kashyap, it can be so arranged between the Speaker, the PAC Chairman and the Minister concerned that the Minister appears on his own. Kashyap thus suggests that if the Ministers concerned and even the Prime Minister appear before the PAC, there may be a way out of the present impasse. The PAC, he says, then can also go beyond the CAG report and take suo motu notice of allied issues. This will only require an initiative and a promise from the Prime Minister himself, he writes.

The Opposition's rejection of the Prime Minister's offer puts a question mark over the effectiveness of the formula suggested by Kashyap to end the impasse.

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