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Tragi-Committee

A solution to the deadlock over the issue of whether to form a joint parliamentary committee to probe the 2G scam depends on the Congress's political acumen. Saroj Nagi writes. Committees & Constitution

delhi Updated: Jan 05, 2011 02:42 IST
Saroj Nagi

The Prime Minister is normally the final arbiter in any government-opposition confrontation in Parliament. But in the faceoff over the telecom scandal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his office are increasingly being seen as part of the controversy itself. Behind this lies the question whether Singh can appear - as he has offered to do - before the public accounts committee (PAC) examining the multicrore telecom scandal or give evidence before a joint parliamentary committee (JPC), which the opposition is demanding.

Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar's optimism notwithstanding, there does not as yet appear any solution in sight to the parliamentary stalemate, which, unless resolved, could lead to brinkmanship. The standoff had washed out the winter session and threatens to mar the budget session starting February, with the Congress accusing the BJP of making a "politically motivated" demand, the opposition accusing Singh of being afraid of facing a JPC, and both sides blaming each other for obduracy. Behind this verbal duel - which ironically is taking place everywhere except in Parliament - are differing interpretations of the scope and mandate of the PAC and the JPC and whether or not they can summon the Prime Minister.

PAC vs JPC
In essence both are committees that emerge from Article 118 of the Constitution, which allows each house of Parliament to make rules regulating its procedures and the conduct of business, and from house resolutions. Constituted every year, the PAC examines the government's accounts, including the CAG's audit reports. It can also, as Kaul and Shakhdhar say in "Practice and Procedure of Parliament", go into the wisdom, faithfulness and economy of expenditure. This includes examining financial irregularities, financial discipline and government policy.

The JPC is an ad hoc committee set up through a motion moved in one house and agreed to by the other. It has a specific mandate and duration and is guided by defined terms of reference. Its recommendations are not binding on the government, which may accept or reject them, partially or wholly.

Can the PM appear before the PAC/JPC?
Going by then speaker GV Mavalankar's direction in 1957, the PAC cannot call a minister for consultation or evidence. By that logic, the Prime Minister cannot appear before the panel even if he offers to do so. But in 1966, then minister C Subramaniam came before the panel, signalling that each case has to be examined in the context of its usefulness to the committee's work. The speaker's permission, however, is imperative in such cases.

Of the four JPCs set up on issues ranging from Bofors to the presence of pesticides in colas, ministers have appeared in two of these in keeping with the panel's terms of reference. As finance minister, Manmohan Singh appeared before the JPC on the Harshad Mehta securities scandal in 1992. So did Yashwant Sinha in the Ketan Parekh securities scam in 2001.

Where then does the difference between the JPC and PAC lie?

Political football?
The government and the opposition are presenting the PAC vs JPC issue in terms of their scope and mandate and their ability to get to the bottom of the scandal that saw the DMK's A Raja quitting as telecom minister and investigating agencies launching a probe. The BJP's argument that the Radia tapes have expanded the controversy, which only a JPC can handle, is countered by the government claiming that the PAC is well equipped to deal with the case, which is also being looked into by investigating agencies. "What more can the JPC do?" they argue. Senior leader Pranab Mukherjee disagreed with Singh's offer to appear before the PAC as, in the former's view, the PM is accountable to the entire House and not to a house committee.

The government and the opposition are presenting the PAC vs JPC issue in terms of their scope and mandate and their ability to get to the bottom of the scandal that saw the DMK's A Raja quitting as telecom minister and investigating agencies launching a probe. The BJP's argument that the Radia tapes have expanded the controversy, which only a JPC can handle, is countered by the government claiming that the PAC is well equipped to deal with the case, which is also being looked into by investigating agencies. "What more can the JPC do?" they argue. Senior leader Pranab Mukherjee disagreed with Singh's offer to appear before the PAC as, in the former's view, the PM is accountable to the entire House and not to a house committee.

The Congress believes that the JPC demand is "politically motivated" to keep the party and the PM in the line of fire, particularly as the opposition rejected the offer to assist the PAC with multifunctional agency probes and hold a special session to discuss whether a JPC should be set up or not. The opposition, on its part, wonders why the government, which claims it has nothing to hide, cannot allow a JPC in addition to the four or five existing ones, especially if it claims that the PAC can do the same job as the JPC.

But behind the claim to get to the truth is also the fact that the charge of corruption has allowed the opposition to target the UPA, attack the PM's Teflon image and keep the controversy alive. More importantly, unlike the nuclear deal or women's bill, which divided the opposition, the issue of corruption has always united the opposition. This had happened earlier when Jai Prakash Narayan rallied the opposition against Indira Gandhi and VP Singh took on Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors issue. A scandal has returned to haunt the Congress now. Not surprisingly, the Congress dared the opposition to bring a no-trust motion, knowing that such a move would be stonewalled by the UPA partners and those afraid of midterm polls.

Any resolution to the persisting stalemate needs to be handled politically and not with arguments on which forum is more appropriate to probe the issue. But this daunting task would need all the political acumen of the Congress's political managers as the basic responsibility of running the House lies much more with the ruling party.

Committees & Constitution