That parliamentary committees, by convention, function on a non-party basis makes them a unique experiment by parliamentarians who are otherwise hardcore politicians. This practice has been the strength of these committees. As a matter of fact, Parliament functions, in the real sense, through its committees. Parliamentary committees are created by the Houses of Parliament to scrutinise governmental activities. After finding the facts about a particular matter, they make recommendations to the government. But their recommendations are directory and not mandatory.
Nevertheless, the government gives great importance to these recommendations and views and implements as many as practically possible.
There are valid reasons why parliamentary committees work in a non-partisan manner. They are set up by the Houses to unearth the facts about an issue of public importance. If members of the committees act the way they do in the House, the facts will never come to light because the ruling party MPs are unlikely to allow those facts that will invariably expose the shortcomings of the government to be revealed to the public. But to the credit of the members, they rise above the narrow considerations of their party’s interest and unitedly try to find the truth and bring it before the House. Rules and practices have strengthened and fortified this convention.
The rules, for example, do not allow the presence of the media in the meetings of the committees. Similarly, rules do not permit a minister to be a member of the committee. By practice, ministers are not allowed to appear as witnesses to give evidence before the committees. Only the senior-most officer of the concerned department appears before committees. Similarly, the proceedings are confidential and no one is permitted to make it public. So, members do not have to take a political stand on issues before the committee as they do in the House.
But now, this healthy convention seems to be breaking down. The open confrontation between the chairman of the IT Committee, Shashi Tharoor, and a senior BJP member of the Committee, Nishikant Dubey, has the potential to destroy the healthy convention and practices followed through all these years by parliamentary committees.
The present controversy in the IT Committee centres around the right of the chairman to call an official from Facebook as a witness. It is not a political issue. It needs to be resolved in terms of the rules and practices alone. There is no specific rule which defines the rights of the chairman. But as per well-established practices as well as the internal working rules of the parliamentary committees, the names of the witnesses originally prepared by the Secretariat of the Committee in a draft form is approved by the chairman with modifications he desires. At no time is it placed before the committee for its approval. If such a practice is adopted, then only those witnesses who are suggested by the majority can be called for examination and the committee may be deprived of the benefit of neutral witnesses.
Further, rules of the House do not permit the list of witnesses to be approved by the committee. For example, the first provision of Rule 270 of the Rules of Procedure says that if a question arises as to 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. Two things are clear from this rule. One, the question of whether a witness is relevant or not will be decided by the Speaker and not through a vote in the committee. Two, the decision of the Speaker is confined to the question of relevance only. In other words, the selection of a witness can be challenged only on the ground of relevance to the subject.
This being the position as per the House rules, the present controversy could have been avoided. Parliamentary committees have been following sensible and healthy traditions and conventions, which have strengthened the institution of Parliament. An open confrontation between members and the chairman is an unhealthy practice, which can only destroy the unity of purpose that is essential for the effective functioning of parliamentary committees.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 3, 2020 under the title ‘A Unity Of Purpose’. The writer is former Secretary-General, Lok Sabha