Behind the smokescreen of JPC probes

In November 2010, the BJP stalled Parliament for 21 days demanding a JPC probe into the 2G spectrum scam, making it one of the most unproductive sessions ever. The Congress was unbending in its stance that the investigation into the 2G scandal through the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), headed by a leader of the BJP, Murli Manohar Joshi, was adequate. Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal only conceded a parliamentary debate, which, he said, would allow for ‘doodh ka doodh aur pani ka pani.’

In sharp contrast, the government in February 2013, was more than willing to constitute the JPC to inquire into the allegations of payment of bribes in the acquisition of VVIP helicopters by the Ministry of Defense from M/s AgustaWestland and the role of alleged middlemen in the  transaction. But the BJP vehemently opposed the JPC defying the logic; it was so keen for a JPC in 2010 but in 2013 so forcefully opposed the joint parliamentary committee. Is this not ironic?

While in 2010, the BJP had its way and the government had ultimately conceded a JPC, in 2013 the government had its way and, in spite of forceful opposition by the BJP, set up the joint parliamentary committee. The government’s strength came from supporting parties — BSP and the Samajwadi Party and Marxists too fell in line. It moved a motion in the Rajya Sabha that was adopted by voice vote.

One of the worst outcome of the stalemate in 2010 was that it tarnished India’s reputation as a long-term investment destination. There was no discounting the value of parliamentary debate, but the truth was that a JPC could work just as well in parallel with a parliamentary debate as a PAC can. So why was the Congress using all its firepower to resist a JPC probe then?

The most important reason was that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was linked to the controversy. The PM initially made an attempt to point former telecom minister A. Raja towards auctions and market benchmarking of spectrum prices. However, subsequent correspondence between the two reveals that Raja informed the PM in detail about his spectrum allocation policy, which he subsequently implemented without any resistance from the PM.

First, since the scope of a JPC was far larger than that of a PAC, this could lead to the PM being asked to explain why he eventually did not restrain Raja. This by itself was the biggest threat that a JPC posed to the Congress. Second, the PM’s culpability was compounded by the culpability of the cabinet.

The JPC of February, 2013, will have ten members from the Rajya Sabha and 20 from the Lok Sabha and shall give its report within three months. Unlike 2010, the BJP and its constituents in the NDA say that the JPC in the helicopter deal was a diversionary tactic as the JPC has no investigative power. It could not be expected to sit and watch as the government waited for the report of the inquiry in Italy and for the preliminary report of the CBI. The matter required extradition and custodial interrogation of persons which the JPC could not do, said Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

Deputy leader of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said the JPC now is a tactic to delay the matter till after 2014 general elections after which the joint parliamentary committee will automatically be dissolved. That was why his party was opposed to it.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath wondered why the BJP in particular was running away from the JPC for which they had disrupted a whole session in 2007, seeking a JPC on 2G spectrum deal.

The fact, however, remains that JPCs in last three decades had not yielded any tangible results and became hot bed of politicking. The first JPC was appointed to inquire into the Bofors contract on a motion moved by the then defense minister K C Pant on 6 August, 1087. The Committee, headed by B. Shankaranand, held 50 sittings and gave its report on 26 April, 1988.

Opposition parties boycotted the JPC on the ground that it was packed with Congress members. The JPC report was tabled in parliament but it was rejected by the Opposition. The second investigative JPC, headed by former union minister and senior Congress leader, Ram Niwas Mirdha, was set up to probe irregularities in Securities and Banking Transactions in the aftermath of the Harshad Mehta scandal. The motion was moved the then Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Lok Sabha on August 6, 1992. The recommendations of the JPC was neither accepted in full nor implemented.

The third JPC was assigned to probe the market scam. The then Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Pramod Mahajan, piloted the motion in the Lok Sabha on April 26, 2001, to put it in place. Senior BJP leader Lt. Gen Prakash Mani Tripathi (retd) was named the chairman.

The committee held 105 sittings and gave its report on December 19, 2002. The committee recommended sweeping changes in stock market regulations. However, many of these recommendations were diluted later.

The fourth JPC was set up in August 2003 to look into pesticide residues in soft drinks, fruit juice and other beverages and to set safety standards. The committee, headed by NCP chief, Sharad Pawar, held 17 sittings and submitted its report to parliament on 4 February, 2004. The report confirmed that soft drinks did have pesticides residues and recommended stringent norms for drinking water.

The fifth JPC was constituted in February 2011 to probe 2G scam. It is headed by P C Chacko and its report is awaited. (IPA)
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