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A Summer Of Face-offs

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Conventionally, parliamentary committees are intended to cut across party lines to dig out the truth on issues placed before them. But over the years, these committees and their findings have degenerated into narrow party interests, a view that is echoed by a senior Congress leader.

The latest hearing to probe into the 2G spectrum allocation scam by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is likely to be another example of the futility of such committees. Both the opposition and the government are charging each other with disrespect of the institutional process, following three-hour-long sessions that have been more debate than discussion.

Saturday, 30 April, when this magazine hits the stands, is the last day of the current PAC's tenure; it is constituted every year. The current chairman, Murli Manohar Joshi, has refused to allow a vote of approval on the draft report on the scam that was deliberated upon by members; there are very wide differences of opinion.

Sources in Parliament say that the Speaker could — within rules of Parliament — reject the report if the majority of the members oppose it.

"It is difficult to say who is wrong or right — but each party member in Parliament is governed by the parliamentary code of ethics," says a BJP member also in the PAC, acknowledging that everyone has violated this code.

By walking out of the PAC, Joshi — and by  extension, the opposition — has, unfortunately, played into the hands of the Congress-led UPA government, which seems determined to delay the proceedings of probes related to the 2G spectrum scam.

A PAC that does not agree on the findings is bound to provide a disputed verdict. The opposition, by inadvertently allowing the process to get derailed, has lost the opportunity to validate its findings.

The allegations it made against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister P. Chidambaram could have been  substantiated and placed before the public to be judged.

Leaking the draft report even before it was presented to Parliament also vitiates the sanctity of maintaining secrecy. "It would be a challenge to convince the Speaker to adopt such a draft," says a Congress leader. "The onus on maintaining the secrecy of the draft lies with each member of the PAC," said BJP senior leader Yashwant Sinha while briefing the media in Delhi on Friday.

These developments will ensure that the proceedings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that will examine the 2G spectrum allocations are going to be a stormy affair; those proceedings could very well end the way the PAC's did.

Amidst the PAC findings of spectrum allocation by the communications ministry are also the performance of the Department of Tele-communications (DoT) and suggestions to improve the telecom services in the country. While the draft report does not explicitly state that the services to consumers were neglected, the very inclusion of the subject in the draft is perceived as significant.

Both the opposition and the government are gearing up for more battles in the next (monsoon) session of Parliament, which will likely be convened in the first week of July. The JPC, however, will begin its probe into spectrum allocations in May, and is scheduled to submit the report before the session ends.

Separately, the Supreme Court — which is  supervising the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) probe into corruption charges related to spectrum allocations — will also begin hearings once the CBI files the final part of the chargesheets against those it claims are involved. Sources in the CBI say the agency is not watching what the PAC or JPC conclude, but will answer to just the Supreme Court.

Most believe that the three separate inquiries are unlikely to come to the same conclusions about who the culprits are, or when. It's going to be a long, hot, stormy summer.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-05-2011)