I was dismayed by the news that the Opposition had decided to boycott the parliamentary standing committees and felt a sense of relief when the boycott was withdrawn and the committees got down to work. As a member of various standing committees in three consecutive Lok Sabhas (11th, 12th and 13th), it has been my experience that the committee system of the Indian Parliament is by and large very effective. The committees make the executive accountable and, if handled properly, can give some direction to the executive as well. The committees have representation from all parties and issues can be discussed in a relatively non-partisan manner.
Due to one agitation or the other, in recent years many working days of Parliament were lost. Members rushing to the well of the House forced the speaker to repeatedly announce adjournments. There were days and weeks of boycott of Parliament by whichever party happened to be in opposition. But during all the turmoil the standing committees went on functioning quietly.
It is in this context, for instance, that I assessed a proposal sent to all chairpersons of standing committees on opening their meetings to the media. After careful reflection I, as chairperson of the external affairs committee, said no to the proposal. I could see that exposure to the media might strengthen parliamentary oversight of the executive. But on balance I felt that in the current context the availability of media publicity would hinder the smooth working of the committees. I had noticed that some MPs behaved in a particular manner inside the House with an eye to the press gallery upstairs or the television cameras. I would rather have serious deliberation on legislative and financial business in the committees without such hindrance. The reports of the committees in any case become available in the public domain as soon as they are tabled in Parliament.
One of the main responsibilities of the standing committees is to examine the demands for grants after the budget is placed in Parliament. After the presentation of the budget the two Houses are adjourned for some time to allow standing committees on home, defence, finance, external affairs, etc, to consider the budgetary provisions of the respective ministries. After the committees’ reports are tabled the Houses can take up informed budget discussions in the light of those reports. The prolonged boycott this time leaves very little time for the committees to discuss the budget proposals. Important bills are also sent to the committees by concerned ministries. The Haj Bill of 2000, for example, came to the external affairs committee. We undertook a thorough scrutiny of all its provisions. After we presented the report to Parliament, it was taken up and passed in both Houses.
As a member of the human resource development committee, I learnt a lot about the human resource potential of our country. My richest experience, however, was during my term as chairperson of the external affairs committee from 1999 to 2004. At the beginning I took up the job with some trepidation because I was told that my predecessors were Atal Bihari Vajpayee (for four years) followed by I.K. Gujral (a year). But with the unstinted cooperation of all my colleagues, whatever their party affiliation, I soon felt at ease. We were, of course, not as powerful as the foreign relations committee of the US Senate. Nevertheless, we did much more than simply review budgets and bills. We provided significant parliamentary overview and helped provide some direction to the conduct of India’s foreign policy.
These were the years when Indo-US relations took a new turn. Indo-Pakistan relations were fraught with tension from 1999 to 2002 but by April 2003 we definitely steered towards a better understanding. Our foreign secretary and other senior officials of the MEA testified before the committee on many occasions and briefed us on important developments. They were invariably asked searching questions by committee members. During the Afghanistan crisis the then US ambassador, Robert Blackwill, came for an interaction and gamely answered the committee’s tough questions. Next came the Afghan ambassador, Khalili. He was still recuperating from injuries sustained during the bomb blast that killed his leader. These interactions were followed by one with our own envoy to Kabul.
During the Iraq crisis, I asked our former ambassadors to Iraq, former army generals and former foreign secretaries, including J.N. Dixit (now the national security advisor), to share their views with the committee. This gave MPs valuable insights. We also asked for inputs on Indo-Pak relations from outside experts who came to the committee and deposed before us.
Once we were asked to prepare a report on the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. In the field of cultural diplomacy ICCR can play a very pro-active role. So we called distinguished figures from the field of dance, music, painting and cinema as well as educationists to the meeting for their views. These views were incorporated in the report tabled in Parliament.
A major responsibility of the external affairs committee is to meet foreign parliamentary delegations and dignitaries and to interact with them. We are, in a sense, ambassadors of our country at home. But when all the resident ambassadors of Arab countries wished to come in a group and interact with our committee, my good friends in the upper echelons of the MEA were a bit apprehensive. Bureaucracies don’t like things without precedents. However, all the difficulties were surmounted and we had very fruitful meetings. These activities made the committee lively and happening.
I firmly believe that further empowering parliamentary standing committees would strengthen Indian democracy. Some members of the present external affairs committee who were in my committee have sent a message that they would like to turn into “convention” all the unconventional things I did during my tenure. Democratic conventions require constant innovation if they are not to be trapped within dreary bureaucratic norms. The current MPs owe it to the citizens to make the standing committees vibrant fora for work and not disruption of work.
(The writer is a former Trinamool Congress MP)