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Committee Politics

Joint parliamentary charades

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So far, every JPC has fallen victim to politics. The latest one on Choppergate is a non-starter even before formal notification.

The irony is inescapable. When Opposition parties raised the demand for a joint parliamentary committee to probe the 2G scam, the UPA stalled. An entire winter session of Parliament was wasted in 2010 as the Manmohan government and the Opposition locked horns. Ultimately, the government gave in and a JPC was set up in the budget session the next year. Two years later, the JPC report is still awaited and Opposition leaders have castigated the committee for proceeding at a "snail's pace".

The roles were reversed this week as Choppergate took Parliament by storm. This time, the government tried to get the better of the Opposition by suo motu offering a JPC to probe charges of kickbacks in the purchase of Italian-made AgustaWestland helicopters for VIP travel. The Opposition resisted it tooth and nail, arguing that a JPC did not have the powers to conduct a criminal investigation. This was the job of the CBI, they said as they demanded the registration of an FIR and a CBI investigation monitored by the Supreme Court. The government rammed through the decision for a JPC with the help of the BSP, SP and in a last-minute coup, the CPM. And the Opposition has decided to boycott the committee. The JPC is a non-starter even before the formal notification.

The joke, really, is on us. Another corruption scandal is heading for burial as political parties trap themselves in partisan bickering and one-upmanship. The truth is never the goal, not with an election looming. The battlelines are being drawn and the JPC is merely a political football to be kicked around till the time parties troop down for war at the hustings.

It looks like Choppergate is all set to become another Bofors. The similarities are uncanny. Consider these. The Bofors kickbacks scandal was first revealed by Swedish radio. An uproar in the Indian Parliament forced the Rajiv Gandhi government, despite its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, to set up a JPC. The Congress packed the committee with its own MPs and those belonging to friendly parties. An angry Opposition decided to boycott the committee.

A year and 50 sittings later, the JPC submitted a report that only lowered the dignity of parliamentary committees. Since Bofors did not supply any documents to the JPC, its members were quite clueless about the payoffs and other details. Yet, the committee concluded that no resident or non-resident Indian had received any commission from Bofors. It also declared that whatever payments were made were "winding up costs", not bribes or commission. In other words, the JPC cleared the Rajiv Gandhi government of any wrongdoing. In Choppergate, with the Opposition deciding to stay away from the JPC, the composition of the committee is bound to be weighted in the government's favour. As in the case of the Bofors probe, the JPC is unlikely to get any material documents from Italy as investigators there have already refused to share information. Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath announced that the committee will submit its report within three months. Few expect anything other than a convenient whitewash as the countdown for the next general election begins.

It's a different matter that the Bofors scandal became the cutting edge of the Opposition campaign against the Congress in the 1989 election, leading to Rajiv Gandhi's defeat and the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP government headed by VP Singh. Whether the Opposition manages to turn Choppergate into a successful election issue remains to be seen but it intends to use every innuendo it can to reinforce the image of a corrupt government. Consequently, it really couldn't care less about an impartial, credible investigation into the helicopter deal.

Former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap laments the degeneration in parliamentary norms and culture. "Parliamentary committees are supposed to oversee the executive but if they become tools in partisan politics, they obviously can't discharge their duties and responsibilities, " he says.

It was quite different in the past. There was a time when Parliament was less partisan and more robust in dealing with corruption scandals. Kashyap recalls the time when allegations were made against Congressman HG Mudgal, a member of the provisional Parliament of 1951. Jawaharlal Nehru himself took the initiative to constitute a parliamentary committee to probe the charges. And when the committee declared Mudgal guilty, Nehru moved the resolution for his expulsion from the House.

But that was another era. There have been six JPCs so far, starting with the one that investigated the Bofors deal. And each one has fallen victim to politics, never arriving at the bottom of any scandal. The JPC that probed the Harshad Mehta securities scam in 1992 did not hold anyone guilty. And its recommendations to prevent future scams were never accepted by the Narasimha Rao government.

Similarly, another JPC set up to probe a market scam during the NDA government tenure also never named the guilty. And the sweeping changes it suggested in stock market regulations were diluted by the government. The JPC report on the 2G scam is awaited.

"JPCs are an exercise in futility, " says BJP leader Arun Jaitley. He believes that scandals such as Choppergate or Bofors cannot be handled by a JPC. "These require criminal investigation. A JPC does not have the powers to conduct such an investigation. A JPC makes sense only when the question of a policy review comes in, " he insists.

Says Kashyap, "It is painful for me to watch the devaluation and de-institutionalisation of Parliament. I have been associated with Parliament from the very first Lok Sabha, from the days of stalwarts like Nehru and Mavlankar. There was much more respect for parliamentary committees then."

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