The demand by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Nishikant Dubey that the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor be removed as chairman of the 32-member Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology (IT) has once again placed the spotlight on the rapidly deteriorating relations between the government and the Opposition. Dubey has also moved a privilege motion against Tharoor.
If the refusal of Dubey – and his BJP colleagues who are on the IT panel – to sign the attendance register at a meeting called by Tharoor is certainly an obstructionist move, perhaps the latter erred in announcing the subject of the meeting on social media before he had shared it with the members of the committee he heads.
A less contentious agenda might have escaped the attention of the ruling party, but Tharoor had decided that the IT committee meeting scheduled for July 28 would be spent discussing citizens’ data protection and privacy. The committee also planned to question officials on the Pegasus spyware, the subject that has already brought Parliament to a virtual halt, with the government unwilling to discuss the matter on the floor of Parliament. France, Israel and Hungary, similarly affected by the use of Pegasus’s spyware, have ordered official investigations, but Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi called the matter a “totally non-serious issue”; instead, he advised his colleagues on the Opposition benches to focus on people-centric subjects.
Dealing With A Hostile Government
If the BJP MPs on the panel, led by Dubey, showed up at the venue only to register their protest, announce their decision not to sign the attendance register and allege that Tharoor was using his position as Committee Chairman to act in a discriminatory manner, the officials from the Union Ministries of Home and Information Technology, who had been summoned for the meeting, also did a no-show. Though they cited a number of reasons, it was evident that they had been “advised” to make themselves scarce. The result was that the meeting had to be cancelled.
One of the panel’s members, the Congress’s Karthi Chidambaram, summed it up on Twitter: “@BJP4India members come to the IT Committee & refuse to sign the attendance register to deny a quorum. Further all the witnesses called from MEITY & MHA wrote in excuses & didn’t appear as called to testify. It’s very clear that #Pegasus is a no go area for this government.” The BJP, he continued, wants to expunge Pegasus from any debate, scrutiny or enquiry. “What are they so afraid of?”
Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy was equally scathing when he spoke to The Quint : “The BJP is deliberately trying to scuttle the parliamentary committees. In this case, they went about it in a planned way – they actually went to the meeting but then refused to sign the register. The Standing Committee system is in danger from these Trojan horses. Modi just wants to destroy the Opposition.” He also recalled that Dubey, who had been a member of the Finance Committee in the last Parliament, had prevented a report on the impact of demonetisation from being tabled.
It is against this backdrop of a government openly hostile to those sitting on the other side of the aisle — indeed, some would say deeply disrespectful of all democratic institutions — that some Opposition MPs are beginning to feel that they need to change their tactics to get the maximum out of Parliament. Else, every discussion will end in a stalemate that can only be to the advantage of the government.
The Need To Build An Understanding
Indeed, even a senior Congress MP stressed to The Quint that given the circumstances, the chairmen of the committees need to work “to build an understanding” among panel members if they are to move forward: “We know the BJP is in an overwhelming majority. The smart thing would be to try and win over some of their people so that the meetings are held. Other committees have been functioning under Opposition MPs...”
Biju Janata Dal MP Bhartuhari Mahtab, for instance, heads the Parliamentary Committee on labour. His panel is currently studying the impact of the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic on growing unemployment, a subject that clearly puts the Modi administration in the dock. Mahtab managed to hold his meetings and the report will now be presented to the Committee on August 3 for adoption. If adopted, it will be presented to Parliament on August 4. The report, sources say, “is highly critical of the way things have been run over the last 15 to 18 months”.
Clearly, things are not easy for the Opposition in a Parliament where the numbers are totally weighed against it, and where the ruling party has so demonstrably shown its contempt for all democratic institutions. But its numbers notwithstanding, it is also the duty of the Opposition to do its best to protect these institutions and try and push the envelope.
The Real Role Of Standing Committees
It is also worth looking at why departmentally related Standing Committees (there are other Parliamentary Committees, too, permanent and ad hoc) were set up in the first place in 1989. It was felt at the time that the rabble-rousing and grandstanding that MPs tended to resort to on the floor of the House had led to the downgrading of parliamentary debates, and there was a need to create forums where serious discussion would be possible. Over the years, the number of these committees grew from the initial three to 24 in 2004. Their mandate was:
to consider the Demands for Grants of the concerned Ministries or Departments that are referred to them by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and make reports thereon
consider annual reports of the Ministries/Departments and make reports thereon
consider national basic long term policy documents presented to the two Houses.
The Parliament website also states: “The Departmentally Related Standing Committee System is a pathbreaking endeavour of the Parliamentary surveillance over administration.”
Initially, the atmosphere at these committee meetings was, by and large, serious, and issues were discussed threadbare, quite unlike what is witnessed in Parliament. Indeed, one of the reasons for setting up the departmentally related committees — apart from improving executive accountability — was that the MPs would focus on the issues, not on making news, if such discussions took place off-camera.
But with incidents such as the present one growing, there is a clear danger to the continuing efficacy and the future of these committees. If there is to be no discussion on the floor of the Houses, and none in the committees as well, what relevance will Parliament have?
It may be a given that the tone in Parliament will be adversarial rather than consensual, and often cacophonous and chaotic, but the Opposition — however small it may be — has every right to be heard as its members, too, represent a section of the people. The government has a mandate to rule, the Opposition has a right to ask questions and have them answered. It is in that spirit that things must work – if parliamentary democracy is to survive. Interestingly, in a chapter entitled “Indian Parliament: changing institutional moorings” in the book The Indian Parliament and Democratic Transformation (2018), veteran journalist, an expert on parliamentary affairs and former Prasar Bharati Chairman, A. Surya Prakash, had written of the committee system, “Attendance at committee meetings must be monitored and MPs who play truant must face the prospect of losing membership of their committees.”
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)