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Standing committees must not be hijacked by politics

Yashwant Sinha writes: An innovation of our parliamentary system of governance, they do an enormous amount of good work, much of which remains unknown to the public.

Parliament of India (File Photo)

The recent goings-on in the standing committee on information technology has once again drawn attention to the system of standing committees, which is one of the major innovations of our parliamentary system of governance. Along with the earlier committees, some of which are mandated by the Constitution, these committees do enormous amount of work for Parliament but generally behind closed doors. It is a pity that in this day and age of complete transparency, the committees are forced to function confidentially. This is one of the main reasons why their good work is not known outside Parliament. It is high time to throw open the proceedings of the committees to public scrutiny as happens in most democracies.

Be that as it may, as someone who has dealt with these committees both as a minister and as member/chairperson, I am a great admirer of the system. So, when I read in the media about what happened in the committee on information technology, I was considerably saddened. In my time, the parliamentary committees generally functioned on non-partisan lines, with some unfortunate exceptions. I headed the standing committee on the ministry of external affairs briefly in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) and the standing committee on finance for almost five years. There were three of us in the BJP in those days, who pretended to understand economics and finance, Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh and me. The real expert was Arun Shourie, but he was in the Rajya Sabha and only a member of the Lok Sabha could head the finance committees. I was the junior-most of the three. So, Dr Joshi and Jaswant Singh always got what they wanted. I had to make do with whatever was left. So, in the 15th Lok Sabha, Jaswant Singh took the public accounts committee (PAC), Dr Joshi took the standing committee on finance and I had to go to the standing committee on external affairs. Soon thereafter, Jaswant Singh was expelled from the party and it took all the diplomatic skills of Sushma Swaraj to persuade him to resign from the chairmanship of the PAC, which by tradition belonged to the main opposition party in Lok Sabha. After his resignation, Dr Joshi preferred to go to the PAC as its chairman rather than continue as chairman of the standing committee on finance. At this point, Sushma Swaraj wanted to know whether I would like to continue where I was or shift to the finance committee.

I was reminded of what Jaswant Singh once told me when he was minister of external affairs and I was minister for finance — that the real work was in the finance ministry, external affairs ministry was mere laffazi (verbiage). So, I told Swaraj that I would prefer to go to the finance committee. I never regretted that decision.

We indeed did an enormous amount of legislative work in the finance committee between 2009 and 2014. I had as colleagues some of the best parliamentarians of the day and the proceedings of the committee were conducted with a lot of energy but also with a lot of dignity. I always asked my questions at the end, after I had offered an opportunity to all members to ask their questions, if any. In fact, the best day of my parliamentary career was when we held the last meeting of the committee, an informal one, and exchanged views for one last time. I was overwhelmed when member after member showered me with encomiums regarding the impartial manner in which I used to conduct the committee meetings. As a result, the proceedings were always smooth, differences were aired with dignity and there was no ill-will even when a member had a major difference of opinion and gave a note of dissent, though it was rare.

I recall with pleasure the joint parliamentary committee which had been constituted to look into the stock market scam of 1992. I was only four years old in Parliament then, but Chandra Shekhar thought it fit to nominate me to that committee. The chairman of the committee, Ram Nivas Mirdha of the Congress, conducted the meetings of the committee with great fairness. He allowed Jaswant Singh to function almost as the deputy chairman of the committee and gave us the space we wanted. He tasked S S Ahluwalia of the Congress then to work with some of us in close concert so that the committee could produce a unanimous report. But not all committees functioned like that. The second JPC on the 2G scam was a disaster and functioned on purely political lines. We had many ugly scenes in the committee meetings and ultimately had to write a parallel report. The PAC headed by Dr Joshi, which was examining the 2G scam, also saw very ugly scenes. The Congress members were under instruction not to allow the committee to adopt its report. So, when the time came to consider the report, my good friend, and a thorough gentleman otherwise, Saifuddin Soz, even climbed on the table to disrupt the proceedings of the committee. But politics in the committees was more an exception and most of the time the committees functioned as a cohesive unit setting aside party affiliations.

Today everything has changed. The present dispensation has little use for parliamentary conventions, practices and precedents, indeed for Parliament itself. With all due respect to the Congress, I have to admit that the “Congressisation” of the BJP is now complete. The only regret is that the present-day BJP has adopted all the wrong practices of the Congress but none of its virtues. Add rabid communalism to that and the picture is complete. If that means the erosion of democracy, then so be it.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘Once upon a committee’. The writer, a former Union external affairs and finance minister, is vice president Trinamool Congress.

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