Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, is set to become the new chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) when it is reconstituted by April 30. It will bring to a close an eventful run with K V Thomas in the chair. Thomas’s three-year stint has been marked by controversy and differences between him and BJP members on various issues, including his remark that Prime Minister Narendra Modi be called before the panel on demonetisation. Sources said the top Congress leadership has decided to nominate Kharge; the new chairperson’s term starts May 1. Thomas has already served as PAC chairman for three consecutive terms. During this run, the PAC has examined a number of contentious issues including demonetisation and the AgustaWestland helicopter purchase.
The PAC, which is reconstituted every year, has 22 members — 15 Lok Sabha and seven Rajya Sabha. Thomas, the Lok Sabha MP from Ernakulam in Kerala, was first nominated to the chair in August 2014 and continued in the post in 2015 and 2016. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is learnt to have told him recently about the party’s decision to appoint Kharge the new chairman. Kharge has won elections 11 consecutive times starting 1972, when he won an assembly seat in Karnataka. He has been the MP from Gulbarga for the last two terms. After serving in Karnataka in various capacities, Kharge became Union minister for labour and employment in UPA II in 2009.
The chair of the PAC is given to an MP of the main Opposition party. There is no bar on the number of terms the chairperson can hold that position. Veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi was PAC chairman for five terms. This was during different Lok Sabhas; during the tenure of one Lok Sabha, Joshi was PAC chairman for four consecutive terms. Among the controversies that have marked Thomas’s term, one broke in the last week of January when BJP MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to the Lok Sabha Speaker accusing Thomas of “breach of privilege” and “lowering the dignity” of the committee for “ulterior political motives”. Dubey urged her to treat his letter as a privilege notice and refer the matter to the Lok Sabha privileges committee. This was the first time that a member of a parliamentary panel had given a privilege notice against its chairperson.
On July 12 last year, BJP members led by Dubey had wanted to head a subcommittee on defence, which could examine CAG reports on irregularities in a number of deals including AgustaWestland. But Thomas rejected this, saying it was his prerogative to choose subcommittee heads. A Congress MP was later made convener of the panel. In wake of these controversies, the Speaker called a meeting of the chairpersons of all financial and department-related committees one-and-a-half months ago and the powers of parliamentary panels were discussed. The Speaker later sent a letter to the chairpersons of all House panels underlining the existing rules on the powers of these panels, their constitutional role and limitations.