A new challenge from committees

Business Standard, May 03, 2015

It seems that parliamentary committees have become a little more robust and forthright in their comments, criticising quite unambiguously the government’s policies. This becomes more than evident if you take a look at the few recent reports of such committees, presented to Parliament in the last fortnight.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, headed by Congress leader M Veerappa Moily, said in its report on April 23 that the government should not abandon the Direct Taxes Code. The new code should be enacted to replace the existing Income Tax Act, which was “very cumbersome”, the report argued. Remember that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has scrapped the Direct Taxes Code that was mooted by his predecessor Palaniappan Chidambaram.

The same committee had a few days earlier submitted a report that questioned the past couple of years’ revised growth numbers, which the ministry of statistics and programme implementation had pegged at a much higher level than earlier estimated. “The committee members are of the view that the new series of national accounts with 2011-12 as the base year has raised more questions than answers.” The report further notes that “the reply of the ministry regarding authenticity and credibility of the new series is also vague”.

Then there is the report of a parliamentary standing committee on the shipping ministry that pulled up the government for its underperformance in the shipping sector, highlighting how a large chunk of the allocated funds remained unused. The parliamentary standing committee on planning was also no less forthright in its recommendations. Since the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog had been formed to replace the Planning Commission, the committee argued that the government must now dissolve the ministry of planning and make the newly created body an independent institution.

Not to be outdone, it seems, the parliamentary committee on environment criticised the government for the lack of funds allocated to the environment ministry, its ad-hocism and lack of plans to control pollution levels. “It is obvious that the targets set (for checking environmental degradation) are entirely unrealistic, going by the record so far. No credible base has been stated in support of the achievability of the targets within a specified time frame,” the report observes.

It is important to note that these committees have produced reports that sharply criticise the government’s policies and decisions at a time when the opposition parties in Parliament have got re-energised and made some headway in stalling the government’s legislative agenda including the land acquisition Bill and even the proposed reforms in the real estate sector. It could be sheer coincidence, but it also underlines the gaps in the government’s management of Parliament, the opposition parties and the political environment in general.

All these committees have a good number of members belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its alliance partners. What were these members doing when the various parliamentary committees were coming to conclusions that would eventually criticise the government’s policies and initiatives? It is possible that several BJP members of Parliament are relatively inexperienced in the way parliamentary bodies function. But what were the experienced and senior BJP members doing? Weren’t their services requisitioned by the party bosses to train and educate the younger BJP members of Parliament so that they knew how to prevent or modify the overall tenor of the reports of parliamentary committees on various schemes of the government?

It seems the absence of such preparatory work has led to the surge in parliamentary committee reports that in the end are going to embarrass the government. Making that task more complicated were traces of inter-ministerial differences on issues such as those between the home ministry and the finance ministry, which went ahead with the new formula for disbursing funds to states, much to the home ministry’s discomfiture over the loss of jurisdictional power to allocate funds for police modernisation schemes in states.

In this respect, the BJP leaders must draw a lesson or two from the way the Congress managed the political environment in Parliament. Remember the huge mobilisation of support the Congress members of Parliament organised when they realised that their finance minister was likely to be indicted in the report on the securities scam in 1993! Or how they thwarted the finalisation and tabling of the report by a committee headed by Murli Manohar Joshi that would have indicted their prime minister in 2011 in the telecom spectrum scam!

The two instances may not be comparable with what the half a dozen parliamentary committee reports have done now. There are no individual indictments in any of these reports. But the BJP leaders should not underestimate the damage even such reports can cause.

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