Legislate, not investigate

On Friday, the opposition parties demanded that a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) be set up to look into the issues surrounding IPL and BCCI. The government has asked for time to consider the question.  

Parliamentary work is undertaken both on the floor of the House as well as through parliamentary committees. Given the paucity of time during Parliament sittings, various committees have been constituted to examine matters in detail and report back to the House. Departmentally related standing committees examine demand for grants, legislative bills and the working of ministries. Other committees look into petitions, subordinate legislation (rules and regulations framed by the government), financial oversight (estimates committee, public accounts committee, public undertakings committee), privileges, rules, office of profit etc. Parliament also constitutes ad hoc committees. Occasionally, an ad hoc joint committee of both Houses is constituted to investigate an issue of national importance. 

Investigative JPCs are quite rare. In the last quarter century, just four such committees have been constituted. These looked into the Bofors issue (1987), the two stock market scams of 1992 and 2001, and the issue of pesticides in soft drinks (2003). This underlines the fact that Parliament’s main functions are legislative, oversight-related and representative; its mandate does not primarily include investigative work. Indeed, one could argue that members of Parliament are not elected for their investigative skills, training or experience, and that this work is better performed by specialised expert agencies.  

There are several other bodies that are primarily tasked with investigative work. These include the state CIDs, the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI. These bodies have the expertise, training and mandate to investigate cases and prosecute the alleged wrongdoers. In addition, the government may establish judicial commissions established under the Commission of Inquiry Act. 

Of course, in politically sensitive cases, official investigative bodies may not be able to function in an impartial and neutral manner. There have been several instances when these agencies have been accused of having acted in a manner that favours the government of the day. Even judicial commissions may not complete their work in a timely manner: witness the commissions set up after the 1984 Delhi and 2002 Gujarat riots, and the Liberhan Commission on the Babri Masjid demolition. That said, JPCs may also be faulted for the same reason. Of the four JPCs, only one had strong political overtones. The JPC to investigate the allegations on kickbacks related to purchase from Bofors was constituted in August 1987. It submitted its report in April 1988, absolving the government of any wrongdoing. However, the case did not reach legal or political closure even two decades later. 

Parliament has a lot of other pressing work, which it needs to find time to do in an effective manner. In the current budget session with an original schedule of 35 sitting days, the government had planned to pass 28 bills.

With 10 days left, it has passed only one bill. It had planned to introduce 63 new bills; it has introduced 14 so far. 

Parliament examines the government’s demand for grants, discusses these and then votes on them. However, it often discusses and votes on the demands of a few ministries; all the other demands are clubbed together and voted upon without discussion. This year, demands of just five ministries are scheduled to be discussed in Lok Sabha. Ministries excluded include defence, home, education and health. During the intra-session recess, committees examine the budget in detail. However, it is questionable whether this process is effective. For example, last Tuesday, the committee’s report on the demand for grants of the ministry of external affairs was tabled at noon. At 2:07 PM, the discussion commenced, and slightly after 7 PM, the demands were voted upon. One wonders how many of the 28 MPs who took part in the debate managed to read the committee’s findings and recommendations within this short period. On many metrics — say, time lost to interruptions or the number of starred questions answered orally — Parliament’s performance could be improved significantly.  

The issue to be considered is not whether Parliament should constitute a JPC to look into IPL and involvement of ministers. It is whether the legislature should conduct investigative work. Other agencies may be better equipped to conduct such work. Also, that would not detract Parliament from doing its primary duty of making national legislation, examining the government’s financial proposals and overseeing the work of the executive.