Last month, Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash was allegedly assaulted in Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence by Aam Aadmi Party legislators. Following a lot of mudslinging, the Question and Reference Committee, a House Committee of the Delhi Assembly, issued notice to the Chief Secretary, asking him to appear before it.
Prakash challenged the panel’s notice in the Delhi High Court on March 5. While hearing the matter, the single-judge Bench of Justice Rajiv Shakdher observed: “We need to address the issue of jurisdiction. We have to be very cautious while dealing with the issue. Today, it is the case of Delhi Assembly. Tomorrow it could be Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha. We need to hear this matter in detail.”
The larger questions in this conflict between the Delhi government and officials involve the role of House Panels such as the Question and Reference Committee, and their powers and privileges.
Why does the House have Committees?
There are 21 House Committees in the Delhi Assembly, each of which has a specified task — delegated to it by the House. The Committees are supposed to hold the executive accountable, and maintain checks and balances in the system.
These panels are needed because the Assembly is not in session throughout the year, and a range of issues still need to be dealt with. They report to the Speaker or the House, and the Assembly Secretary is the ex officio secretary of these Committees.
What are the Committees’ functions?
The role of the Committees is defined in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, 1997. Under Rule 172, a House Committee can summon witnesses by an order signed by the Assembly Secretary. All evidence “tendered before the Committee shall be treated as secret or confidential until the presentation of the report of the Committee to the House”. The Committee has the power to secure the “attendance of persons or the production of papers or records if considered necessary for the discharge of its duties” unless the government deems such a disclosure detrimental to the interests of Delhi.
Are the powers of House Committees in Delhi similar to the ones in other states?
The functions of House Committees in the ‘full’ states are similar to the duties discharged by the Committees of Parliament. Despite having an elected Assembly, however, Delhi (and Puducherry) is not a ‘full’ state. Therefore, the powers of its Assembly Committees are not quite similar to the powers of Assembly Committees in other states. Former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, Subhash C Kashyap, said, “The confusion arises from the fact that many people consider Delhi to be a complete state, but it’s not a state or even a ‘half’ state. It is a Union Territory. So in that case, how can the powers of the House Committee of the Delhi Assembly be more than that of any other state?”
So, what has Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash argued in the High Court?
Chief Secretary Prakash has submitted to the High Court that the Delhi government has “no legislative power over service-related matters and, therefore, cannot exercise any executive power either”. In order to “indirectly overcome such constitutional limitations”, the government “has unconstitutionally taken recourse to/aid of House Committee to indirectly wield executive power over service-related matters.”
But does the Delhi government have no authority over service-related matters?
In May 2015, the Union Home Ministry took away the Delhi government’s power to legislate on service-related matters and handed it over to the office of the Lieutenant Governor (LG). This notification was upheld by the High Court in August 2016 after it was challenged.
This notification, the Delhi government argues, has led to a situation where it has little or no control over its own officials. It is, therefore, the House Committees that allow the ruling dispensation to hold the officers accountable, it says.
How has this disagreement aggravated the situation in Delhi?
The AAP’s dominance in the House is unique. In Parliamentary Committees, membership is in most cases proportional to the strength of individual parties in the House. In 2015, the AAP won an unprecedented 67 of the 70 seats in the Assembly. The sole opposition in the House, the BJP, currently has only four seats. As a result, it has little or no representation in most Committees. The Question and Reference Committee that issued notice to Prakash contains no opposition member. This, the BJP has argued, allows Committees to selectively take up issues and pass orders that are in line with the political interests of the AAP government.
And why are officials alleging that they are being “targeted”?
On May 2, 2017, a committee probing an alleged bank fraud had instructed former Delhi Chief Secretary M M Kutty to “put on record its displeasure”, and include adverse remarks in the service records of officers who had given “unsatisfactory” answers. In September, the LG concluded that the appropriate authority for including remarks in service records of officers was not the government, but his office. On October 16, the committee enquired from Kutty why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him for not following its instruction. Eventually, Kutty approached the High Court, informing it that he was “caught between the devil and the deep sea… Whom should we answer to… the Assembly or the LG?”
Many officials argue that in the political fight between the House Committees and the LG, they are caught in the crossfire, with the threat of adverse remarks in their service records hanging over them.
What does the AAP claim?
AAP leaders argue that empowering Assembly Committees will not only make the system more transparent and accountable, but will also strengthen the democratic structure. It cites the example of similar committees in America, where all proceedings are recorded, and their details are put in the public domain.
In August last year, AAP legislator Saurabh Bhardwaj, at a Facebook live event on House Committees titled ‘Experiment with Legislative oversight’, had said that “these Committees had always existed”, but were now in the news because “they were actively going to the ground to check the claims made by officers”.