New Delhi: Rajya Sabha MP and Essel Group Chairman Subhash Chandra recently joined a long list of businessmen-turned-politicians who have made it to parliamentary standing committees that may deal with matters relating to their business interests.
In September 2017, when a number of committees were reconstituted, as they are every year, Subhash Chandra became a member of the standing committee on information technology (IT) – a committee that has in the past looked into and dealt with issues relating to the media and broadcasting sector.
The standing committee on information technology (IT) was reconstituted on September 1, under the chairmanship of BJP MP Anurag Singh Thakur (he had earlier chaired the committee in 2016-17 as well). Among the newly appointed Rajya Sabha members to the IT committee was Subhash Chandra.
The Essel Group chairman – whose business interests include broadcasting, digital media, technology and online content – was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Haryana in June 2016 as an independent candidate backed by the BJP. A month before his election, Chandra stepped down as chairman of Zee Media.
What exactly does this standing committee do? In addition to reviewing bills and scrutinising grants, the committee’s broad jurisdiction includes the “ministry of communications (which includes the departments of telecommunications (DoT) and posts), the ministry of electronics and information technology and the ministry of information and broadcasting”.
Various Essel Group companies such as Zee TV, Dish TV and Siticable get their licenses from the I&B ministry and the DoT. These companies are also regulated, to various extents, by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
A review of the parliamentary committee’s schedule and meetings over the last year show that MeitY, DoT, I&B and TRAI officials of often appear before the panel on issues such as implementation of digitisation of cable TV, frequency allocation, interoperability of set-top boxes, net neutrality, data protection and privacy and the impact of TRAI’s recommendations on the broadcasting sector.
These are all issues that could potentially impact the Essel Group companies business interests. According to an Economic Times report, the IT panel has identified twenty immediate subjects which it will tackle including “challenges faced by India’s film industry, ethics for media coverage, social media oversight to stop terrorism propaganda” and a “review of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)”.
Zee News itself has in the past complained about potential conflict of interests when it comes to parliamentary committees. In 2013, the media company shot off a letter to the-then Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, asking her to remove Congress MP Naveen Jindal from the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs on the grounds that it was a conflict of interest.
At the time, there was an ongoing court case between Jindal and Zee News. The company’s letter to Kumar alleged that Jindal had misused his position as a member of the standing committee on home affairs to put pressure on the Delhi police which was investigating the case.
“The letter also points out that Jindal’s position as a member of the standing committee is a clear violation of the provisions of the Constitution and practices followed by Parliament,” DNA (which is owned by the Essel Group) reported in 2013.
Potential conflicts of interest due to placements on parliamentary standing committees, while not illegal, have been a long-standing concern that has plagued both the previous UPA government and the current NDA government. In 2015, after the tobacco-cancer incident, The Hindu reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had written to his senior party colleagues and told them that MPs “who have conflict of interest should avoid becoming members of parliamentary committees”.
Former union minister V.K. Chandra Deo, who in 2009 led a committee that looked into conflicts of interests in parliamentary committees, told The Wire that although this general practice violates no specific rule or law, it should ideally be curtailed.
“Irrespective of parties, across party lines, this needs to be stopped. People believe that MPs come to Parliament to further their business interest. Although my report was unanimously endorsed it was never implemented. Even if people with business interests are appointed to panels, the normal practice should be to recuse themselves. This does not happen that often. Sometimes the onus falls to the chairman of the committee to make sure this etiquette is enforced,” Deo said.
Recent examples of potential conflict of interest include liquor baron and former Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya and Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
Mallya was a member of the consultative committee for ministry of civil aviation and standing committee on commerce. The responsibilities of the former committee included vetting bills drafted by the aviation ministry and evaluating its demand for grants. Former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh in 2016 called Mallya’s seat on the panel a “serious conflict of interest” and alleged that it gave the liquor baron “access to information, and an unfair advantage to influence policy.”
Rajeev Chandrasekhar on the other hand, who has business interests in the defence sector, has been on both the parliamentary committee of defence and on the consultative committee for the ministry of defence over the last two years. As Newslaundry pointed out, “these committees are key in moulding policy that influence the sector – including defence procurement procedures.” In legal proceedings instituted by him against The Wire, Chandrasekhar has maintained that the parliamentary committee on defence is a merely recommendatory body, having no power to influence either the defence policies of the Government or the award of contracts to defence contractors. He has also contended that the companies in his group that operate in the defence space are “professionally managed” by “independent managers”, and that their commercial operations are therefore not liable to be linked to him.
Indeed, policy experts who spoke to The Wire point out that it could be useful to have parliamentarians with relevant business interests to sit on on panels that deal with their sectors as they bring domain expertise to the table. The problem, however, is the lack of a strictly defined ethics policy that dictates when panel members are required to recuse themselves.
Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Darda, who owns the Lokmat group of newspapers, for instance has been in the past a member of the committee on information technology (which also has pointed out above looks after issues concerning the I&B ministry).
In other cases, it has not worked to great effect. Lok Sabha MP Shyam Charan Gupta made waves in 2015 when he stated that were was no “causal relationship between tobacco consumption and cancer”. It would have been amusing if not for the fact that Gupta was at the time a member of the committee that was examining a proposal to allocate 85% of the surface area of a cigarette pack to graphic pictorial warnings. The real conflict of interest, however, lay in the fact that Gupta is a bidi baron, with family interests in the tobacco industry.
These potential conflicts of interests have affected all industries. For instance, Samajwadi Party MP Chandrapal Singh Yadav was the chairman of a fertiliser company while sitting as a member of the parliamentary standing committee on chemicals and fertilisers.
Very rarely do they boil over into full-blown controversy. The closest it got was when in 2009 complaints were raised that three MPs (T. Subbarami Reddy and Lagadapati Rajagopal of the Congress and Nama Nageswara Rao of the Telegu Desam Party) were allegedly using their position on the committee on public undertakings to enhance their business dealings with PSUs.
Deo committee report
A 2009 report prepared by a committee headed by Deo had recommended that MPs should be denied placement on parliamentary standing committees that scrutinised matters relating to their business or personal interests.
“The committee members are of the view that a provision may be made to the effect that if a member has a personal, pecuniary or direct interest on any subject/matter, he should not be nominated in the first place to the Departmentally Related Standing Committee, which normally examines such subjects/matters,” the report, which was submitted to the Lok Sabha speaker a decade ago but whose recommendations were never implemented, said.
As Bhanupriya Rao, an open data and RTI campaigner, has noted in the past, both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have very little or inadequate disclosure when it comes to potential conflicts of interest. To top this off, India also does “not have a stringent conflict of interest law that could examine, investigate and punish cases of violating conflict of interest”.
Crucially, the Deo committee had also recommended that committee members should either not vote or simply recuse herself when a connected issue (in which the MP may have a “direct pecuniary or personal interest”) comes up for discussion.