This is no way

Stalemate in parliament

The winter session of parliament has failed to do any legislative business effectively because of the confrontational politics of the government and the opposition over the issue of the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the CWG, 2G spectrum and Adarsh Housing Society scams.

The opposition, particularly the BJP, is not ready to accept anything short of the JPC while the CPM has said that it would consider any other option if it is equally effective. Government’s troubleshooter and Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is emphatic that the JPC is not required as the Public Accounts Committee is competent to probe it which is headed by an opposition leader.

It is true that the PAC is empowered to investigate the account, and in fact, the report of the CAG is also investigated by it. But there is a provision for the JPC also on major issues. Parliamentary committees are the soul force of parliament which being all-party bodies are different from the council of ministers which is exclusively the majority-party or the ruling coalition body.

Thus, parliament elects two steering committees to work on its behalf: the cabinet which the most important committee meant to run the government and the all-party parliamentary committees entrusted with the role of conducting the legislative work of parliament more closely. These committees are broadly of two types — department-related specialised standing committees for the detailed scrutiny of the expenditure, administration and government policy and ad hoc committees, like the JPC, which are set up to examine a particular contemporary issue.

In the past 25 years, four investigative JPCs have been set up but their results are anything but heartening. The first one was in 1987 to investigate the allegations of payment of kickbacks to Indian politicians by the Swedish armament firm Bofors. The government yielded to constitute one after 40 days of logjam in parliament over this issue, but the opposition boycotted on the ground that it was packed with Congressmen and headed by Shankaranand who was supine in the eyes of the opposition.

The second one was set up to probe the securities scam in which Harshad Mehta allegedly swindled government’s money by getting the overdraft from nationalised banks and played the stock markets. However, the special court was set up after five long years of the submission of the report, and some of the recommendations were never implemented.

The third one was set up in 2001 to inquire into the Ketan Parekh share scam in which there was an alleged nexus between Parekh, banks and other corporate houses. Its recommendations were diluted. The last one was set up in 2003 to investigate allegations of the presence of pesticides in soft drinks. The report confirmed the allegation and suggested safety standards for beverages, but hardly anything was done.

PAC’s effectiveness

Thus, the experience of the past JPCs has not been encouraging, and since it works on the basis of majority, the government always gets an upper hand. But the committee may be able to uncover some embarrassing details. The PAC is also an effective body but under tradition, it works on the principle of consensus though there is a provision for dissent. Previously, its recommendations were highly valued.

It was only because of the adverse finding of the PAC in the jeep scandal in 1950s that V K Krishna Menon could not be inducted into the Cabinet for several years despite Nehru’s liking for him. It was a time when parliamentary committees were fiercely independent as their members kept national interest above party interest.

Then, even government agencies like the CBI enjoyed total functional independence. Times have changed and the moral fibre of the society has gone down. Anyway, members of the ruling as well as opposition parties must ensure smooth functioning of the House. The Opposition can put the government on mat during question hour and enforce accountability, but unfortunately it indulges in disruption because it is able to hog limelight.

The government also must not give reasons to the opposition to create furore. Indian parliament is based on the triple notion of representation: (a) it represents the nation/people, (b) it represents different interests/classes, and (c) it represents the federation/regional states.

Long back, British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, in his famous letter to his electors, said, “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good.”

To ensure this general good, parliament must not be disrupted. Shrinking of sessions is a cause of concern for the nation, and speaker Meira Kumar had planned to conduct the House for at least 100 days in a year.

The Committee to Review the Working of the Constitution observed, “If there is a cause of unease with the way the parliament and the state legislatures are functioning, it may be due to a decline in recent years in both the quantity and quality of work done by them. Over the years the number of days on which the houses sit to transact legislative and other business has come down very significantly.

“Even relatively fewer days on which the houses meet are often marked by unseemly incidents, including use of force to intimidate opponents, shouting and shutting of debate and discussion resulting infrequent adjournments. There is increasing concern about the decline of parliament, falling standard of debate... erosion of moral authority and prestige of the supreme tribunal of the people.”

It’s time our parliamentarians woke up to their responsibilities.

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