A faceoff between the government and the main opposition Congress is brewing over the reconstitution of the parliamentary standing committees. The government has conveyed to the Congress that it will not be given the chairmanship of the committee on Communication and Information Technology, prompting leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury to approach Speaker Om Birla in protest on Wednesday.
The Communication and IT panel is headed by Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, who incidentally is in the middle of another important battle as he is preparing to contest the Congress presidential election. Sources in the Congress alleged that the move to take away the IT panel chairmanship from the party was because of the committee’s decisions like summoning representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google over alleged misuse of platforms.
The panel had last month summoned Twitter. Its representatives were questioned on the allegations of its former senior executive that the Indian government forced the microblogging platform to hire individuals who were “government agents”, and who got access to vast amounts of user data on the social media platform. Twitter, however, had stonewalled queries from the panel on the company’s data security practices at the meeting.
The meetings of the IT panel had also witnessed sparring between BJP members and Tharoor in the past. So much so that BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had on multiple occasions demanded the removal of Tharoor as the panel head.
Sources said the government has conveyed to Congress that the party will be given the chairmanship of the committee on Chemicals and Fertilizers.
Taking strong objection to the government’s decision, Chowdhury on Wednesday wrote to the Speaker, urging him to “reconsider and reverse this ill-thought-out decision and to restore to the Congress Party the Chair of the Standing Committee on Information Technology”.
“I was dismayed to learn from the Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Prahlad Joshi, that in a departure from existing conventions, which have been honored by successive governments irrespective of which party is in power, a decision has been taken to withdraw the allocation of the role of Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, which, as you know, is chaired by Dr Shashi Tharoor of the Indian National Congress,” he wrote.
He said the move was “deeply troubling” for a number of reasons.
Sources said the government has also conveyed to Rajya Sabha leader of the Congress that the party will not be given the chairmanship of the Committee on Home Affairs currently headed by Abhishek Singhvi.
Referring to that, Chowdhury wrote: “While for a similar decision in the Rajya Sabha, the marginally reduced size of the Congress party was the reason cited by the government, there has been no such change in the Lok Sabha, which raises ominous questions about the real intent behind such a decision.”
“At the same time, per existing conventions, it is extremely unusual that the Chairpersonship of a Committee has been changed in the middle of the 17th Lok Sabha. The allocation of Committees has, to the best of my knowledge, normally been determined at the start of the convening of a fresh Lok Sabha and, except for special circumstances, has remained per the formula decided till such time as it is dissolved,” he said.
“There are no unusual circumstances in this case and the IT Committee has been one of the more active and well-regarded Standing Committees in our Parliament. As floor leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, I strongly protest this proposed decision to interfere with the distribution of Chairpersonship in the middle of a Lok Sabha, which marks yet another instance of this government’s scant regard for parliamentary convention, as well as the well-established principles of consultative deliberation and legislative oversight that are the bedrock of any parliamentary democracy,” Chowdhury added.
He also pointed out that the government had earlier taken away the chairmanship of the panel on External Affairs from the opposition. “In an uncanny manner we are being dwarfed much to the detriment of vibrant democratic practices. There is no extenuating reason for this repeated attempt to dilute the role of the principal Opposition party in the Lok Sabha,” he said.