No government readily concedes a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to probe alleged irregularities, particularly when the demand also carries a heavy political overtone.
On Tuesday, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a JPC on the 2G spectrum scandal, it was after the three-week winter session of Parliament was washed out because of the opposition boycott and the budget session stood threatened.
Opposition leaders recall that Parliament was paralysed for 45 days before the Congress agreed in August 1987 to a JPC on the Bofors gun deal. Similarly, after Parliament did not work for 17 days, a JPC was set up on the Harshad Mehta-securities scandal in 1992.
A deadlock for 15 days forced the BJP-led NDA government to agree in 2001 to a JPC on share market-Ketan Parekh scandal. The fourth - on pesticides in colas and other beverages - did not have the political significance of the other panels.
How does a JPC work?
A JPC is an ad hoc committee mandated to go into a specific issue. It is constituted through a motion moved in one house of Parliament and agreed to by the other. It has a specific mandate and duration and is guided by defined terms of reference.
Chaired by a ruling party member, the panel may have 15, 21 or 30 members, with the number of Lok Sabha MPs in it is double that of Rajya Sabha legislators.
A JPC has the powers to get evidence of experts, associations, individuals or interested parties suo motu.
Ministers are normally not summoned and if required to come, the panel first seeks the permission of the Speaker, as had happened when Manmohan Singh came before the 1992 JPC and Yashwant Sinha before the 2001 JPC.
Failure to comply with the summons constitutes contempt of the House.
The panel's proceedings are supposed to be confidential. But the JPC on the securities scandal decided that its chairman would brief the media.
Why do parties demand JPC?
This is partly because of political reasons. The demand acquires a political pitch with repeated stalling of Parliament.
Once formed, it helps the opposition keep the issue alive.
But a JPC also performs the serious task of taking stock of systemic failures and looking for ways to plug loopholes by proposing stringent rules, stricter punishment and perhaps establishment of regulatory mechanisms.
In the case of 2G spectrum, the opposition did not agree with the government that the JPC would be duplicating the work of the public accounts committee (PAC), which is examining the CAG report on the telecom scandal.
It argued that the PAC examines the government's finances through the CAG report and does not go into points of general policy, which a JPC can. The JPC's findings have persuasive value.
However, the government is required to give a follow-up report on the suggestions made by the panel.