Friday, 25 September 2020

Joint Parliamentary Chaos

Updated: March 23, 2013 10:39 am

The formation of a JPC to probe the latest scam no longer holds any threat for the ruling coalition. As a veteran of numerous scams, the Congress leadership has by now perfected the manner in which even a JPC can be turned into its virtual extension. Instead of working on non-partisan lines, as per the best parliamentary traditions, a JPC now exerts its considerable energies to put a tight lid on the very scam it is entrusted to probe.

The one thing about these committees is that they are standing jokes. They’re the parliamentary equivalent of mob justice. When a criminal wins an election, his response usually is “I’ve been acquitted in court of the people”. Since the JPC reflects the parliamentary break-up of the people’s ‘court’, numbers and not facts decide what these committees finally ‘find’. When the Opposition agreed to a JPC in the chopper scam, the only one who is being taken for a ride is the general public.

We all know what the Bofors JPC had produced: one big zero. Till today there is no official confirmation of who got the kickbacks and how much. We knew who gave it, but the years of efforts did not pinpoint the parties that received the money. The report practically gave a clean chit to the government, even though it did find tangible evidence of pay-offs.

The second JPC on set up to probe the irregularities in securities and banking transactions after the Harshad Mehta scandal in 1992 was headed by Congressman Ram Niwas Mirdha. The recommendations of the committees were never implemented. In fact, the findings were swept under the carpet.

The third JPC on the stock market scam was constituted in April 2001 and was the only effective one. It was headed by BJP leader Lt. Gen Prakash Mani Tripathy, who held 105 sittings and gave its report on December 19, 2002. The committee recommended sweeping changes in stock market regulations but many of the reforms that it suggested were not implemented.

The fourth JPC was set up in August 2003 to probe the pesticide in soft drinks and beverages and to bring some safety standards. The reports were submitted on February, 2004, which confirmed the presence of pesticides and recommendations were made for safety levels for drinking water and bottled drinks, but no steps were taken and the whole exercise was a futile one. What will be the outcome of the fifth JPC on the 2G scam, which is being headed by the brazenly partisan chairman PC Chacko, is well known. Hence, the experience so far reveals that result of earlier formed JPCs has been practically ‘nil’ with huge man-hours and money spent on these. Parliamentary probes have proved ineffective in India. This is largely because they lead to sterile results.

The first Joint Parliamentary Committee, in the aftermath of the Bofors case, was set up with the idea that it would examine the issue in much greater detail than would be possible on the floor of Parliament. The reasons behind setting up the JPC was that as the whole House did not have time to consider the issues in detail there was need for greater specialisation to be able to understand the issues. The committees seek inputs from outside experts and then come up with recommendations that would be tabled in Parliament.

In the words of veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, “No government since Independence has been so badly battered and shattered as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s has been.” It is a maxim for any government that whenever you find yourself in a corner, find an escape route by establishing a committee. The beleaguered Manmohan Singh government did just that when it established a 30-member JPC to inquire into the controversial AgustaWestland helicopter deal..

It is not surprising that the opposition has little faith in this mechanism. Parliamentarians are not experts in probing serious cases where proper investigators can do much better under direct supervision of the Supreme Court.

The JPCs are practically a hindrance in the way of the RTI Act. The Committees misuse section 8(1)(c) of RTI Act for preventing disclosures in the name of parliamentary privilege. Even the Central Information Commission is reluctant (perhaps to avoid privilege proceedings by Parliament) in ordering disclosure under section 8(2) of RTI Act where exemptions contained under section 8(1) can be overruled in public-interest. Section 8(1)(c) is itself in contradiction with concluding provision of section 8(1) which states that information given to Parliament will not be denied under RTI Act.

In spite of the string of scandals that has rocked the Congress-led UPA government during its last two stints, the image of Manmohan Singh has remained squeaky clean. However, one cannot forget that he himself exonerated the then Communications Minister, A Raja. But how can one deny the fact that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is the place where the buck stops? The scams continued to get headlines for months and there is also evidence that the sanctions were given. That the PMO knew about them but the Prime Minister did not is a proposition hard to digest when the transactions were going on. Similar are the credentials of Defence Minister AK Antony under whose charge the helicopter purchase deal was finalised. He too had rubbished the kickbacks story which appeared some months ago. Now he has to eat crow.

“We will order an investigation” said Antony. As Sir Humphrey Appleby says in Yes, Prime Minister, “Government enquiries are only used for killing Press stories”. And that’s exactly what this Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry will yield. It is probable, if not possible, that such a situation happened and that neither Manmohan Singh nor Anthony knew what was happening right under their noses. But when the scams have come to light and particularly when the officials in the loop have been spotted, it is expected that some heads should roll. In the 2G scam, except the detention of a few bureaucrats and a couple of ministers, it is business as usual. Here too, Kapil Sibal had gone to town, giving Raja a clean chit and even castigating the CAG.

Today, the government is suspect in the eyes of the public as if ministers have been caught with their hands in the till. In public perception, hardly any minister is regarded as honest. It is such a loss of faith that every segment of administration has a question mark against it. Investigation agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) stand devalued. Several former directors of the CBI have written articles and books to show how they were given instructions from above to decide a case in a particular way.

The JPC can help the opposition to keep the heat on the government through various proceedings. If indeed there is need for a JPC, it’s to find means of strengthening Parliament in ways that will allow our highest institution of democracy to effectively discharge its obligations to the people of this country.

By Anil Dhir

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