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India’s Realpolitik Is Making Joint Parliamentary Committees Almost Toothless

The opposition’s demand for a JPC to investigate the Adani group led to disruptions in parliament. But do JPCs work?

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The Opposition’s ongoing demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate the allegations against the Adani group, has led to frequent disruptions in the parliament. Why does the opposition resolutely demand a JPC and the government vehemently opposes it?

A commonsensical response would be that a committee is empowered by the rules and regulations of the parliament with specific terms of reference to guide the investigation, thereby, being effective in ascertaining the accountability of the executive.

The JPCs institutionally carve out space by the parliament to inquire about alleged irregularities, corruption, or misconduct involving the executive and suggest plausible policy measures.

Contrary to common sense, the story of the earlier JPCs in India (1987, 1992, 2002, 2003, 2011), thus far, shows a dismal reality.

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The Reality? Partisan Motivations

Ironically, the political parties are aware of the limitations of the JPC as it merely plays a recommendatory role. But, as far as politics is concerned, the opposition is motivated by committees’ pester power in unsettling the government in JPC paraphernalia, that is, media, investigation, calling witnesses, looking into paper trail, etc. The partisan motivations of the opposition and the government have negative implications for the efficacy and effectiveness of the JPC. We have already witnessed JPCs on Bofors, Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, and the 2G Spectrum scams spectacularly failing.

Reports by these JPCs lacked synergy and collective efforts, no effort for consensus building by the chairman, replete with dissents by the opposition members; following that it becomes easier to simply sideline or reject the report, for instance, Narasimha Rao government was dissatisfied, and disagreed with JPC report on Harshad Mehta scam as it implicated the Finance Ministry and RBI for dereliction of duty. Similarly, the opposition outrightly rejected the Bofors and 2G Spectrum scam JPC report as these reports towed the government narratives.

Such rejection or dismissal of the JPC reports depicts distrust in the committee's procedures and functioning. There is no logical conclusion to the entire process of JPCs when both the government and the opposition want to get rid of it.

A legislature’s investigative JPC has no significance if recommendations are not taken seriously by the government intended to bring some procedural or policy change. The previous JPCs could not bring any substantial policy change. Neither government nor the opposition is interested in weighing the effectiveness of the JPCs in terms of their suggestions and recommendations.

Therefore, even the Action Taken Report (ATR) on the committee’s recommendation and suggestions are not taken seriously. Besides two ATR on the Harshad Mehta JPC report, only the Ketan Parekh JPC has witnessed a bi-annual ATR by various governments after 2002 stating the government’s action and remedial measures taken on the recommendations to avoid repetition of any such scam once again.

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Concern Parliamentary Accountability

Committees are supposed to incline toward the formal and non-political aspects of decision-making and agenda-setting. The executive is wary of JPCs as they empower the parliamentary authority. The ongoing demand for the JPC to scrutinize the executive is rather political than for scrutiny.

A JPC as in its present form and ambit of authority in terms of rules and regulations cannot be expected to do much in terms of substance or effectiveness to ensure accountability. There are institutional limitations and structural weaknesses. It is bound to fail and soon the opposition parties will start rejecting committees’ work and reports. The working of the committee will succumb to partisan politics.

Ironically, there are more political interests and reasons for the opposition to demand a JPC. Therefore, a government is not afraid of its effectiveness or the surprises its report would eventually throw, but wary of the opposition’s politics and narrative that follows the constitution of a JPC as witnessed during the Bofors, Harshad Mehta, or 2G Spectrum scandal.

If the opposition succeeds in creating a political narrative against the government around the paraphernalia of the JPCs, the ultimate purpose is served. That is why the government is usually reluctant to readily accept a demand for a JPC.

JPCs can be an effective medium to make the executive accountable in a parliamentary democracy, but in the case of India, it needs some urgent reforms in terms of the constitution, and in the ambit of autonomy and functioning.  Apart from the Rules and Procedures of the House, the Directions of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha also play an indispensable role in shaping JPCs. The Speaker, therefore, has the power to make and grant certain specific powers to the JPCs related to the calling of witnesses (whether any minister or prime minister can be called for hearing and as a witness or not).

Previous experience with JPCs shows that the Speaker has not been infallible in obstructing or intervening in the functioning in favor of the government. In this context, the long-awaited reforms in electing Speaker Indian parliament can radically revamp the committees as well.

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Impending Reform

Of late, a parliamentary system like Britain has reformed its parliament by transforming the way to elect a Speaker where the possibility is to rupture any direct influence by the government on this seat; along with certain crucial reforms in Committees functioning like how to elect a chairman and its members. The Chairperson de facto decides the fate of any committee, the nature of the report, and the direction of the investigation. Therefore, the impartiality of the chair is sacrosanct. The bipartisanship of the chair is an essential feature.

The government wants to control the JPC by ensuring that the chairperson belongs to the ruling party (Except in 2003, opposition leader Sharad Pawar was the chairman of the JPC to inquire about Pesticide Residues in Soft Drinks), which incessantly leads to more partisanship once the members of the opposition realize this, the easiest way is the political use of the committees which is weaponizing the JPC itself outside the parliament.

The JPC can become an effective tool for the legislature to scrutinise and seek accountability from the executive only after the stated reforms in the existing framework of parliamentary working and mechanism are implemented.

Otherwise, weaponising the investigative JPC for political purposes would definitely, albeit unfortunately, lead to the shrinking of the parliamentary terrain, thereby negating any possibility of institutionalisation of JPCs. The purpose of JPC or any committee is not politicking but meant to manifest checks and balances. Yet another numerical addition of investigative JPC would certainly not ensure these checks and balances between the legislature and the executive but would further the deinstitutionalisation of the committees. 

(Rupak Kumar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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