By Vineeth Murthy
India’s parliament has made headlines recently for its paralysis, dysfunction and grandstanding – not unlike the U.S. Congress. Along with the decline of parliament itself, parliamentary committees are in crisis – committees that are essential internal institutions which serve to hold the government accountable. This institutional deterioration takes place against a backdrop of controversies surrounding two of its most important committees – the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The controversy stemmed from the Comptroller and Auditor (CAG) report that revealed in 2010 that the Ministry of Telecommunications undervalued the allocation of 2G spectrum and licenses, claiming a loss to the Indian exchequer up to $39 billion. It was extraordinary in its charges.
Parliament’s failure to function over the last decade goes beyond today’s headlines. It reflects a failure of the government as a whole, including opposition parties who have repeatedly disrupted parliament to publicize their anger against the executive. Disruptions have included walkouts as well as general ‘ruckus’ on the floor of the house. In 2012, 36% of the allocated time to parliament was lost due to disruptions. This should be disturbing, considering that India’s legislature only works for 60 to 70 days a year on average, compared to the United Kingdom (140 days) and the United States (126 days).
India’s parliamentary committees are brought together to scrutinize legislative business, an effort that cannot be conducted by the parliament at large due their complex nature. Indian members of parliament (MPs) have generally maintained during this failure of government that committee members take views that are independent of their parties. This is despite the country’s draconian anti-defection law that disqualifies legislators from their positions if they vote on a bill counter to the party line. Since its inception in 1985, the law has prevented MPs from voting independently of their party. An MP who must vote with their party is thus unlikely to write a report critical of the government on important issues.
The PAC is a thus crucial committee which examines government spending and the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) for accountability. Parliamentary committees consist of members of the Lok Sabha (lower house) and the Rajya Sabha (upper house). Usually, committees are comprised of members of political parties proportional to their representation in parliament. While part of the parliament, committees “oversee” the functioning of the government. Between 1980 and 1999, 61% of PAC’s recommendations were adopted by the government.
However, the PAC itself has now been riddled with politics and controversy over the 2G scandal. A draft PAC report was leaked, its members claimed to have elected a new chairman, while the incumbent staged a walkout amid acrimonious scenes between members. It has been more than three years since the committee first met to review the case and an official report has yet to be filed. The policy vacuum created by a dysfunctional government has not been filled by parliamentary committees.
Overall, there have been 139 (committee and subcommittee) sittings and 66 reports submitted by the PAC on various issues since June 2010 – evidence that suggests that the PAC is functioning smoothly on less controversial issues. Nevertheless, the issue of 2G spectrum is arguably the most important event in the 15th Parliament. For the first time, a minister and high ranking government officials have been arrested. It has tested the country’s foremost democratic institution in its primary task of upholding accountability. The JPC, which was formed to examine the issue of the 2G Spectrum scam, has generated debate on the role of JPC as opposed to the PAC. The JPC itself has been mired in controversy with committee members and political parties questioning the fairness in its functioning.
The last few years have witnessed an unfortunate institutional decline in India – and Parliament is no exception. Corruption has prevented the government from functioning efficiently and parliament has failed to hold the executive accountable. In the world’s largest democracy, the intense politicking of the PAC and the CAG report are stark reminders of the extent of parliament’s decline.