Why Is the Modi Govt Closing Forums of Public Accountability During a Pandemic?

In a crisis, taking parliament and its committees into confidence will definitely help in managing the situation better.

I was struck by a letter that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) had written to the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the speaker of the Lok Sabha urging them to let parliamentary committees meet virtually to enable them to address issues of public interest amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This was the third letter written by the party, with previous ones being sent in July and August 2020.

Derek O’Brien, TMC MP, said that the party had received a letter from the chairman’s office dated August 27, which stated that it was “decided in a meeting that the matter regarding holding of virtual meetings of the parliamentary committees vis-à-vis existing provisions on confidentiality of the proceedings of the committees, may be referred to the committees on rules in both the Houses”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a national disaster, leading to helplessness all around. At a time when the country is posing itself as an emerging power and calls itself the world’s largest and robust democracy, its instruments of public accountability have become non-functional.

Even though I have been an advocate of an activist judiciary, I have serious reservations about the judiciary taking over the day-to-day monitoring of the management of the COVID-19 crisis. Apart from the Supreme Court, at least eight high courts are seen actively engaged in discharging this onerous responsibility. This is like imposition of the president’s rule at the Centre, by another name. There is no provision for it in the constitution. The red line of division of powers between state organs envisaged by the constitution must be respected.

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At the same time, a question must be asked as to why the highest forum of public accountability and inquisition in a democracy, namely parliament, has been permitted to become non-functional. India owes the legacy of parliamentary democracy to Jawaharlal Nehru, who strived incessantly to establish the supremacy of parliament. During his time, parliament came to be recognised as the highest forum of inquisition. This was seen time and again in major catastrophes such as the Chinese aggression in 1962, internal Emergency and a series of scams starting with Bofors.

In mature democracies, the efficacy of parliament largely depends on the functioning of its committees. I have been consistently advocating the strengthening of parliamentary committees. The importance of these committees will be all the more after the impending delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies and an increase in the estimated strength of Lok Sabha to 1,200 members and of Rajya Sabha to 800 members. This is the ostensible reason for the construction of a new parliament building at such a break-neck speed even during the current pandemic. But, this will be futile unless parliament is permitted to function and does not become just an appendage of governance structure.

Construction work underway as part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, at Rajpath in New Delhi, Friday, May 7, 2021. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

The credit for introducing the parliamentary committee system goes to Indira Gandhi. As I had brought out in my book, India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial, the initial fears and apprehensions of opposition parties at the time was that the committee system would become a ploy to skirt parliamentary debate and discussion. India has come a long way since then. Now any questioning of the government policies in parliament and its committees, even on a national calamity such as the COVID-19 pandemic, is considered unnecessary!

Also read: Parliamentary Panel Had Asked Govt to Ramp up Production Capacity of COVID Vaccines in March

The limitations imposed by COVID-19 should not be permitted to bring to a standstill the functioning of critical institutions. The judiciary has adapted itself to this new normal by holding virtual hearings. Suitable, modified procedures have been evolved for the purpose.

Against this background, I am unable to understand why the committees of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha cannot be held virtually. Most shocking is the reported reason of maintaining the secrecy of the proceedings of the committees. When the Right to Information Bill was under consideration of the joint select committee of parliament, I was called as a witness. Pranab Mukherjee was the chairman.

At the beginning, I was asked to take an oath that I would not divulge my deposition before the committee would to anyone. I had submitted to the committee that it was a travesty that such an oath had to be taken by a witness on the Right to Information Bill. Chairman Mukherjee had said that the point I had raised was important but the larger question would have to be considered by the rules committee. Nearly two decades have elapsed since then and still the ghost of the secrecy of the proceedings seems to be haunting the corridors of parliament. What is so sacrosanct about the secrecy of committee proceedings?

The government is reluctant to take people into confidence in the management of this national calamity. Otherwise, a special session of parliament could have been called to discuss the situation. Parliamentary committees could have been enabled to function effectively. The prime minister could have held press conferences to share his assessment, concerns and available options with the people. Periodical all-party meetings could have been held to discuss the issues and evolve a national consensus in the light of the ever-changing situation and emerging challenges. But for this to happen, the mindset that an all-knowing government is the best judge of the situation has to change.

Madhav Godbole is a former home secretary and secretary, justice, Government of India. His new book, India-A Federal Union of States: Fault lines, Challenges and Opportunities, is under print.