When a standing committee is stood up by representatives of three ministries on an issue of public importance that has raised serious questions and concerns, something is not right with parliamentary democracy. More specifically, Wednesday’s failure, evidently synchronised and reportedly last-minute, of officials of the ministries of electronics and information technology, home affairs and department of telecommunication, to attend a meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on information technology on the Pegasus spyware issue, signals that the BJP-led government at the Centre is avoiding the subject and disrespecting the process of Parliament. Ever since the revelations broke out, of Israeli spyware being used to mount surveillance against potential targets among politicians, activists, dissidents and others, parties of the Opposition have been rightly asking that the government discuss the issue in both Houses. The French government has raised the issue with Israel; NSO, the company that developed the spyware, is under scrutiny. Yet here, the government has turned a deaf ear to those asking questions, calling them disruptors and obstructionists. The no-show by ministries’ officials has taken this obduracy to a worrying new low.
It is one thing to stonewall questions raised by political opponents. And quite another to shut the door on the committee process, which is, by design, closed-door and less adversarial, and which functions as a bridge between the people and the legislature, apart from being an essential part of the intricate mosaic of checks and balances in a parliamentary democracy. The committees assist Parliament in its functions of deliberation, discussion and oversight. They provide a forum where members can engage with domain experts and other stakeholders apart from government officials, on complex matters, deepening the scrutiny and widening the inputs in the lawmaking process. The reasons, on paper, that have been given by officials of the three ministries for not appearing before the parliamentary committee on Wednesday, after confirming their participation earlier, are different — in the current context, they are also irrelevant. Because their failure to attend only confirms the disquieting sense that a government with a large majority is intent on having its way through the by-passing of institutions.
On crucial matters ranging from the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir to the three farm laws that sparked farmers’ protests that are still ongoing, the BJP-led government has been seen to sideline Parliament. The weaponisation of the mandate and the winner-takes-all approach of the Narendra Modi government is unprecedented in many ways. The government must realise that this is taking a larger toll. A matter as serious as the Pegasus revelations must find its way into the House. In its bid to short-circuit Parliament just because it can, the government, as during last week’s raids on Dainik Bhaskar, looks imperious — and insecure.