The demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) by the Opposition and the government not relenting to it has made both Houses of Parliament totally non-functional during the whole of the winter session. If the deadlock is not resolved, chances are that the Budget session of Parliament will also go the way of the winter session.
Some form of resolution seemed to be in sight when the prime minister offered to appear before the public accounts committee (PAC) for questioning. This move has been opposed by the Opposition as well as some members of the government itself, most notably senior Cabinet minister Pranab Mukherjee.
So can the prime minister appear before the PAC? Direction 99 states that a minister shall not be called either to give evidence or for consultation. According to this direction, the PM cannot appear before the PAC whether it is a voluntary offer or on a summons from the committee. This direction was issued by Speaker GV Mavlankar in 1957.
However, Lok Sabha records show that the minister for steel and heavy industries C Subramaniam had appeared before the PAC on August 1, 1966, and had given evidence. It only shows that if circumstances warrant, a different procedure can be adopted. The only criterion should be that such appearance is necessary to facilitate the work of the committee and not hamper its work.
One reason why ministers are not allowed to appear before the committee is that their appearance will divide the committee on party lines, which is deleterious to the interest of parliamentary committees. This may not be the case in all situations. The offer from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appear before the PAC is a development of great significance. There are no precedents for it. The PM's evidence will most certainly facilitate the investigation being done by the committee.
Now that the chairperson of the PAC has received the PM's letter offering to appear before the committee, he has to proceed in the matter in accordance with the relevant rule. Proviso to Rule 270 says that if any question arises whether the evidence of a person is relevant for the purposes of the committee, the question shall be referred to the speaker whose decision shall be final. The speaker has to consider only one question, namely, whether the evidence of the person concerned, in this case Prime Minister Singh, is relevant. If it is relevant, the speaker may allow the evidence of that person.
Seemingly, there is a contradiction between this rule and Direction 99 in as much as the latter bars the committee from calling a minister. But rules and directions have been framed to regulate the working of the House and its systems. And the speaker has been vested with enough powers to issue directions from time to time to facilitate the working of the system. What is required is to creatively apply the rules and directions to new situations.
Efforts can be made now to find the middle path that is somewhere between the maximalist positions both sides have taken in the JPC vs PAC imbroglio. The PAC on its own can, in the normal course of its remit, undertake a comprehensive investigation. Nevertheless, keeping in view the dimensions of the scam, an appropriate resolution can be brought in the House directing the PAC to investigate all aspects of the scam. The resolution can specify all the areas to be investigated. The House has the power to direct any of its committees to undertake any task that is not specifically assigned to it under the rules because the House is supreme in the matter of its procedure.
When the untenability of the continued disruption of sessions of Parliament is realised by all, this can be the basis for a discussion to find an amicable solution to the problem.
(PDT Achary is former secretary general, Lok Sabha. The views expressed by the author are personal)