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Last Updated Friday September 22 2017 05:03 PM IST

Steps on to render parliamentary committees toothless

Sachidananda Murthy
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Steps on to render parliamentary committees toothless There was a strong reaction when K.V. Thomas publicly said he would summon Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley before the Public Accounts Committee.

The adventurism of K.V. Thomas in trying to summon prime minister Narendra Modi before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the parliament has triggered a review of the parliamentary committees by the NDA government.

Thomas, as chairman of the powerful committee, had suo motu taken up the examination of Modi's demonetization policy. The committee, which is dominated by the ruling coalition members, did not bother when Thomas summoned Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Ravindra Patel, State Bank of India chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya and senior finance ministry officials. However, when Thomas publicly said that he would summon Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley, there was a strong reaction.

As the prime minister had refused to speak on demonetization in parliament, some Congress leaders thought advisers of Modi might have secretly approached the committee to get its platform and Thomas might have been persuaded by the BJP members to be accommodative. Initial signals from the prime minister's office were not negative.

But senior ministers such as Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar conveyed that the committee will try to grill the prime minister, who is not fully familiar with parliamentary conventions. Modi has so far refused to answer questions on demonetization by MPs or by media, preferring to deliver his message through public speeches in India and abroad. Secondly, it was pointed out the committee proceedings are held in camera, which means there will be no benefit of national television audience, which is the case when Modi speaks in either Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.

The BJP then went on the offensive telling Thomas that the committee had no powers to call ministers, as per long established rules and conventions. Even though the outnumbered Thomas conceded, now the government is reviewing the convention where the chairmanship has gone to an opposition member.

When the current term of Thomas expires after monsoon session, the government may deny the opportunity for a Congress member from Lok Sabha, even though they are the largest opposition group. The attempt would be to give the chairmanship to a MP from AIADMK, which is the third largest party after BJP and Congress. The justification would be Congress is not a recognized opposition as it lacks membership equivalent to one tenth of Lok Sabha's strength. The same logic was used to deny the deputy speakership of Lok Sabha to Congress in 2014 when the position went to M. Thambidurai of AIADMK.

The BJP also wants to introduce a restriction for PAC, where the committee can take up for consideration only the reports of the comptroller and auditor general of India after they are submitted to parliament. If the committee or its chairman wants to take up any other subject of government policy, then a written permission of Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mohan would be required. As Mahajan belongs to BJP, she would consult the government.

Jaitley and parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar are also annoyed that apart from PAC, two more parliamentary committees have taken up demonetization policy and its impact for examination. These are standing committee on finance and the committee on information technology. Now, the government wants to restrict these powers also. 

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