As Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook faced yet another round of US Senate Committee hearings on antitrust business practices, India must learn from this style of transparent and public hearings and the enormous value it adds to a healthy and functional democracy.
Whether at state Vidhan Sabha or the central Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha levels, committee hearings are mostly ‘In Camera’; behind closed doors and none of the proceedings are either open or made available to the general public.
This might be suitable to avoid political grandstanding or indeed necessary for sensitive issues such as Intelligence, but holding them in private as a matter of course does more harm than good and denies the public the right to know and denies the government the ability to boost public confidence in the elected representatives and democratic processes.
Lessons From UK’s Grilling of its PM & Scotland Yard
One of the most effective parliamentary committees in the world is the British parliament’s ‘Liaison Committee’, which is made up of the other 32 chairpersons of parliamentary committees and meets twice, even thrice on rare occasions. The chairperson of this particular committee cannot be a chair of any other committee to maintain a degree of neutrality.
What makes this committee model particularly powerful is that its key witness, called to give evidence alone and often for several, publicly broadcast live, hours, is the prime minister.
Aside from the weekly ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’ at the House of Commons, this initiative enacted by Tony Blair provides committee chairs the opportunity to interrogate the PM more intrusively on policy issues raised in their own committees.
At a local level, one of the most famous crime fighting agencies in the world – the Metropolitan Police Service (Scotland Yard) – is overseen by the Mayor of London’s ‘Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime’ (MOPAC), which calls senior officers and civilian staff, including the Commissioner from the Met Police to provide an account of their functioning, budgets, crime trends and other policing issues.
As a counterbalance to their powers, MOPAC cannot appoint or dismiss the Commissioner. That is a matter for the home minister. As a counterbalance against both the mayor and the home minister, neither can get involved in any aspect of Met Police operations – no political directions can be given. The police always maintains its most sacrosanct responsibility, ‘operational independence’.
The Met Police itself has been subject to a range of inquiries, the most damning of which began after the murder of a young black man on the streets on London, Stephen Lawrence.
The ‘Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’ was wide and deep in scope, looking closely at minute details such as the recruitment of ethnic minority officers, and its report forever tarnished the image of Scotland Yard with the famous phrase that it was “…institutionally racist”.
No Public Hearings For Indian’s Civil Servants
No such public hearings take place in India for any IPS or IAS officer, despite them leading organisations with immense powers, budgets and responsibilities - one of the best examples being 'Coal India', a behemoth unlike any other in the world, headed by an IAS officer who answers only to a central minister.
India also has many police commissioners and director generals of police, all beyond reproach. Such oversight has been mandated on numerous occasions by various parliamentary inquiries and even the Supreme Court, but all ignored. One of the great absurdities of the Indian criminal justice system is that it can ignore itself.
Parliamentary committees have a way of escalating matters and exposing them more intrusively to the public. In the build up to the Iraq War, British MP Tom Watson questioned Dr David Kelly, a UN Biological Weapons expert, on the legitimacy of the claims that Saddam Hussein had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ (WMD), including chemical weapons.
This was after Dr Kelly had been exposed by the BBC as the source who claimed that the Tony Blair government’s WMD claims were bogus. After being named by the BBC and then publicly scolded by Watson, Dr Kelly was found dead in a field near his home.
This triggered a full-scale public enquiry, ‘The Hutton Inquiry’, which called – among many others – the BBC reporter who named Dr Kelly, the then defence minister, the director of the BBC and Tony Blair’s advisor Alistair Campbell.
The Iraq war issue itself snowballed into a full-scale inquiry, ‘The Iraq Inquiry’, which called all the senior military, intelligence and political leaders involved in the war, including Tony Blair. The 1-million-page report was finally made public in 2016.
India also has a public inquiry system albeit they are mainly known as a ‘Commission’, but most of the findings of such commissions have been lying dormant without their recommendations ever been put into place or followed up on.
Inability to Summon Ministers Limits Parl Committees: Tharoor
Martin Tiplady OBE, an ex-Director of HR (who has also faced a number of committee hearings) of the 57,000-strong Metropolitan Police Service said, “The benefit of parliamentary committees are in raising major questions in a public forum that one cannot hide from.
“It holds managers to account, commits a direction and formalises the need to take real decisions and actions. There are many matters in the Met that would not have had the same impetus were it not for the public holding to account,” Tiplady had said.
Dr Shashi Tharoor, incumbent chair of the Parliamentary IT Committee and previously chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said, referring to open hearings “that kind of spectacle becomes impossible because of strict rules of confidentiality governing the parliamentary committees in India.”
Tharoor went on to explain a major handicap. “Also our committees can summon officials and outside witnesses but not ministers, which limits their effectiveness in influencing policy-making.”
Unless India harnesses the full value of committee hearings at all levels, policy making, legal, structural and Constitutional reform will be denied to the people of India and our systems and processes will be tilted in favour of those in and with power, forever protecting them and keeping them and their decisions beyond public accountability.
(Anthony Khatchaturian is a historian and commentator. He tweets @AKhatchaturian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)