Subhash Chandra Joins List of
MPs on Parliamentary Panels Handling Issues Linked to Their
The Wire, October
committee on information technology, which the Essel Group
chairman joined in September, closely deals with issues that
concern the media and broadcasting sector.
Rajya Sabha MP and Essel Group Chairman Subhash Chandra recently
joined a long list of businessmen-turned-politicians who have
made it to parliamentary standing committees that may deal with
matters relating to their business interests.
In September 2017, when a number of committees were
reconstituted, as they are every year, Subhash Chandra became a
member of the standing committee on information technology (IT)
– a committee that has in the past looked into and dealt with
issues relating to the media and broadcasting sector.
The standing committee on information technology (IT) was
reconstituted on September 1, under the chairmanship of BJP MP
Anurag Singh Thakur (he had earlier chaired the committee in
2016-17 as well). Among the newly appointed Rajya Sabha members
to the IT committee was Subhash Chandra.
The Essel Group chairman – whose business interests include
broadcasting, digital media, technology and online content – was
elected to the Rajya Sabha from Haryana in June 2016 as an
independent candidate backed by the BJP. A month before his
election, Chandra stepped down as chairman of Zee Media.
What exactly does this standing committee do? In addition to
reviewing bills and scrutinising grants, the committee’s broad
jurisdiction includes the “ministry of communications (which
includes the departments of telecommunications (DoT) and posts),
the ministry of electronics and information technology and the
ministry of information and broadcasting”.
Various Essel Group companies such as Zee TV, Dish TV and
Siticable get their licenses from the I&B ministry and the DoT.
These companies are also regulated, to various extents, by the
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
A review of the parliamentary committee’s schedule and meetings
over the last year show that MeitY, DoT, I&B and TRAI officials
of often appear before the panel on issues such as
implementation of digitisation of cable TV, frequency
allocation, interoperability of set-top boxes, net neutrality,
data protection and privacy and the impact of TRAI’s
recommendations on the broadcasting sector.
These are all issues that could potentially impact the Essel
Group companies business interests. According to an Economic
Times report, the IT panel has identified twenty immediate
subjects which it will tackle including “challenges faced by
India’s film industry, ethics for media coverage, social media
oversight to stop terrorism propaganda” and a “review of the
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)”.
Zee News itself has in the past complained about potential
conflict of interests when it comes to parliamentary committees.
In 2013, the media company shot off a letter to the-then Lok
Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, asking her to remove Congress MP
Naveen Jindal from the parliamentary standing committee on home
affairs on the grounds that it was a conflict of interest.
At the time, there was an ongoing court case between Jindal and
Zee News. The company’s letter to Kumar alleged that Jindal had
misused his position as a member of the standing committee on
home affairs to put pressure on the Delhi police which was
investigating the case.
“The letter also points out that Jindal’s position as a member
of the standing committee is a clear violation of the provisions
of the Constitution and practices followed by Parliament,” DNA
(which is owned by the Essel Group) reported in 2013.
Potential conflicts of interest due to placements on
parliamentary standing committees, while not illegal, have been
a long-standing concern that has plagued both the previous UPA
government and the current NDA government. In 2015, after the
tobacco-cancer incident, The Hindu reported that Prime Minister
Narendra Modi had written to his senior party colleagues and
told them that MPs “who have conflict of interest should avoid
becoming members of parliamentary committees”.
Former union minister V.K. Chandra Deo, who in 2009 led a
committee that looked into conflicts of interests in
parliamentary committees, told The Wire that although this
general practice violates no specific rule or law, it should
ideally be curtailed.
“Irrespective of parties, across party lines, this needs to be
stopped. People believe that MPs come to Parliament to further
their business interest. Although my report was unanimously
endorsed it was never implemented. Even if people with business
interests are appointed to panels, the normal practice should be
to recuse themselves. This does not happen that often. Sometimes
the onus falls to the chairman of the committee to make sure
this etiquette is enforced,” Deo said.
Recent examples of potential conflict of interest include liquor
baron and former Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya and Rajya Sabha MP
Mallya was a member of the consultative committee for ministry
of civil aviation and standing committee on commerce. The
responsibilities of the former committee included vetting bills
drafted by the aviation ministry and evaluating its demand for
grants. Former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh in 2016
called Mallya’s seat on the panel a “serious conflict of
interest” and alleged that it gave the liquor baron “access to
information, and an unfair advantage to influence policy.”
Rajeev Chandrasekhar on the other hand, who has business
interests in the defence sector, has been on both the
parliamentary committee of defence and on the consultative
committee for the ministry of defence over the last two years.
As Newslaundry pointed out, “these committees are key in
moulding policy that influence the sector – including defence
procurement procedures.” In legal proceedings instituted by him
against The Wire, Chandrasekhar has maintained that the
parliamentary committee on defence is a merely recommendatory
body, having no power to influence either the defence policies
of the Government or the award of contracts to defence
contractors. He has also contended that the companies in his
group that operate in the defence space are “professionally
managed” by “independent managers”, and that their commercial
operations are therefore not liable to be linked to him.
Indeed, policy experts who spoke to The Wire point out that it
could be useful to have parliamentarians with relevant business
interests to sit on on panels that deal with their sectors as
they bring domain expertise to the table. The problem, however,
is the lack of a strictly defined ethics policy that dictates
when panel members are required to recuse themselves.
Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Darda, who owns the Lokmat group of
newspapers, for instance has been in the past a member of the
committee on information technology (which also has pointed out
above looks after issues concerning the I&B ministry).
In other cases, it has not worked to great effect. Lok Sabha MP
Shyam Charan Gupta made waves in 2015 when he stated that were
was no “causal relationship between tobacco consumption and
cancer”. It would have been amusing if not for the fact that
Gupta was at the time a member of the committee that was
examining a proposal to allocate 85% of the surface area of a
cigarette pack to graphic pictorial warnings. The real conflict
of interest, however, lay in the fact that Gupta is a bidi
baron, with family interests in the tobacco industry.
These potential conflicts of interests have affected all
industries. For instance, Samajwadi Party MP Chandrapal Singh
Yadav was the chairman of a fertiliser company while sitting as
a member of the parliamentary standing committee on chemicals
Very rarely do they boil over into full-blown controversy. The
closest it got was when in 2009 complaints were raised that
three MPs (T. Subbarami Reddy and Lagadapati Rajagopal of the
Congress and Nama Nageswara Rao of the Telegu Desam Party) were
allegedly using their position on the committee on public
undertakings to enhance their business dealings with PSUs.
Deo committee report
A 2009 report prepared by a committee headed by Deo had
recommended that MPs should be denied placement on parliamentary
standing committees that scrutinised matters relating to their
business or personal interests.
“The committee members are of the view that a provision may be
made to the effect that if a member has a personal, pecuniary or
direct interest on any subject/matter, he should not be
nominated in the first place to the Departmentally Related
Standing Committee, which normally examines such
subjects/matters,” the report, which was submitted to the Lok
Sabha speaker a decade ago but whose recommendations were never
As Bhanupriya Rao, an open data and RTI campaigner, has noted in
the past, both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have very little or
inadequate disclosure when it comes to potential conflicts of
interest. To top this off, India also does “not have a stringent
conflict of interest law that could examine, investigate and
punish cases of violating conflict of interest”.
Crucially, the Deo committee had also recommended that committee
members should either not vote or simply recuse herself when a
connected issue (in which the MP may have a “direct pecuniary or
personal interest”) comes up for discussion.
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