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A No Loser Tug of War


Members Vs Mandarins:

By Devender Singh Aswal

The members of the Council of Minister are accountable to the legislature collectively and severally. Ministers answer questions, pilot legislative/policy proposals and reply to the debates in the legislature. The bureaucracy – the mandarins – act behind the scenes by giving inputs to the ministers without being directly in the line of fire.  On the contrary, in the committees of a legislature, the onus of explaining and defending the acts of omission and commission rests on the shoulders of the top bureaucracy. While ministers often escape the heat and fury in parliament when the proceedings are disrupted due to dharnas, walkouts and adjournments, the officers – the departmental heads – appear before the committees which are at work round the year despite parliamentary logjams. The dictum, ‘The Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst the Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work’ of Prof Woodrow Wilson, who later became the 28th President of the US, aptly describes the real work ethos and culture of parliamentary committees.

A legislature by its very composition, cannot perform all its  functions efficiently and effectively due to inherent time constraints; limited sittings of legislatures spoiled by dharnas and repeated adjournments; difficulty in sifting of evidence, and recording of testimony; and the challenge of securing the participation of every member on every vital matter before the House. Due to a host of benefits, legislatures across the world, irrespective of the form of government, set up a variety of committees to discharge their multifarious functions. Our Parliament, between the two Houses, has over five dozen committees covering almost the entire gamut of governmental activities. The rules of procedure and conduct of business of State Legislatures, too, provide for setting up of committees.

A Committee comprising members of legislature is a mini-legislature as there is proportional representation of different political parties on it. Articles 105 and 194 confer the same powers, privileges and immunities on both the Houses of Parliament and on the State Legislatures and on the members of the committees thereof. Each committee has well defined functions and mandate and has to work within its remit and report to the legislature within the given time line.  A committee has inherent power to send for papers, persons and record, which is an integral part of the power of legislative oversight to expose and publicise ‘corruption, maladministration, or inefficiency in the agencies of the Government’. This power is ‘an aid to legislative functions and not to expose private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the power’ of the legislature. The committees perform a bonafide legislative function when they enquire into a matter and send for papers, persons and records.

The secretaries – the senior most departmental heads – depose before the committees. A large number of senior officers accompany the secretary to assist during oral testimony, especially when the Demands for Grants are being considered by the Departmentally Related Committees or in the financial committees.

The financial committees, namely, the Public Accounts Committee, the Committee on Estimates and the Committee on Public Undertakings keep unremitting vigil over the executive and form an effective triad of accountability. Some people consider, especially, the Public Accounts Committee, ‘a scourge of the civil service’.  Pranab Mukherjee once famously said at an international forum that ‘the Indian democracy stands fortified by the C&AG and the PAC’. The general perception is that the committees instill, in a real sense, ‘the wholesome dread of parliament’ in the bureaucracy through their periodic and all encompassing scrutiny.

Unlike the committees of many world parliaments, the sittings of our Committees are held in private to enable the witnesses, who are preponderantly senior most bureaucrats, to make free and frank depositions without the glare of the media and to ensure that the instinct of the members to play to the gallery is not aroused. It is  not permissible for anyone privy to the proceedings to communicate directly or indirectly with the media about the proceedings till the report is presented to the legislature. Government may refuse to share privileged information invoking the plea of public interest.  But the plea has to be invoked with great foresight and, on the balance of considerations, as non-disclosure of information may boomerang and dent the image of the Government.

In the Mahabharat, Shanti Parva, Bhishma exhorts King Yudhister that truth must be spoken in the Sabha. Even Caesar, the dictator of Rome, refused to send a lie to the Senate, notwithstanding the forewarning of threat to his life. Under the conduct rules of business of every legislature, a witness/representative of the ministry appearing before the committee is deemed to be under oath ‘that he shall be true, will conceal nothing and that no part of the evidence tendered shall be false’. This applies with equal rigour with respect to the documents or information supplied to the committees. The refusal to answer questions, prevarication or willfully giving false evidence, suppression of truth, or to give convoluted answer, trifling with the committee, or destruction of material documents sought by the committee, constitute breach of privilege and contempt of the committee. Any testimony violating the sanctity of rule of evidence is perjury and punishable.

The unfinished labour of love of the predecessor committee is taken forward by the successor committee. The dissolution of the legislature does not wipe clean the slate of a committee. The senior bureaucracy is regularly and strenuously involved in the working of the committees at various stages, right from submission of advance study material, replies to the questionnaire, oral testimony and the eventual examination and implementation of the recommendations. The civil service has the onerous task to collect, collate, and cross check scrupulously the veracity or otherwise of the information, formulate replies and supply the same to the committee within the stipulated time. This requires due diligence and steady perseverance. A seasoned bureaucracy knows it well that half baked draft or perfunctorily written note or delay in furnishing the information triggers uncomfortable and avoidable questions.

Unfortunately, many state legislatures do not constitute committees or delay inordinately their constitution. This is so, ostensibly, the political executive of such jurisdictions disdain or shy away from legislative scrutiny. This is a sign of discomfiture and elective autocracy which remains opaque. Besides, a trend is seen in many jurisdictions where secretaries seek exemption from personal appearance in rote disregarding the cardinal tenet that parliamentary work has precedence over the executive work.  Such requests should be made sparingly and with adequate justification. In a compelling circumstance, a secretary may seek fixing a new date for evidence or draft the next below senior officer to depose before the committee with the prior permission of the chairperson. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’, and more so, a public servant must gladly suffer parliamentary scrutiny.

The recommendations of the committees are not binding on the Government as such, yet it does not detract from their importance. In fact, the committees wield influence not direct power;  give advice not command; offer criticism not obstruction; and make scrutiny without arrogating to themselves policy initiative which is the domain of the executive. Notably, the well considered recommendations are the end product of the valuable inputs furnished by the ministries, domain experts, and the extensive deliberations and the consensus that the all party members reach in the committees. When an all party committee speaks agreeably and in one voice, it carries great weight and consideration and it impels the Government to implement the recommendations. To quote Prof Wheare, ‘the committees bring unity out of plurality, direction out of confusion and decision out of discussion’. Where it’s not feasible to implement a recommendation, the bureaucracy adduces reasons, and should do so unhesitatingly, sharing their constraints and limitations. If convinced, the committee may not reiterate implementation of such a recommendation.

The ultimate objective is to bring efficiency, effectiveness of expenditure and austerity and to secure accountability of the executive to the legislature. While the legislatures, especially State Legislature, meet for a few days in a year and transact far limited business, the committees transact a great deal of business, covering every government department within the ambit of their scrutiny. Albeit, the Committees are serviced by the officers and the staff of the legislature Secretariat, yet the civil service plays a very significant role by supplying background papers, necessary data and information and by tendering oral testimony. Eventually, it’s the bureaucracy which considers and implements the recommendations in due course. The invaluable contribution of the bureaucracy forms the basis of a committees’ report and their contribution and cooperation is invariably acknowledged by every committee in the report submitted to the House.   In the committees the game is not between the Treasury and the Opposition but between the members of the legislature and the senior bureaucracy. The game is likened to a ‘tug of war in which the members always win but the mandarins never lose’. Notably, such a periodic engagement  with the committees gives splendid opportunity to the departmental heads to share their constraints and difficulties. The interface also strengthens the chain of accountability and helps remove programmatic shortcomings and deficiencies by periodic review. So, it’s a win-win situation for both the sides, if there is willing cooperation and the committees work in a bipartisan manner and conduct themselves as the high tribunals of legislature. Indubitably, it’s in larger public interest that the legislatures set up adequate number of committees and the committees are constituted without delay. More so, the committees must meet regularly, function in a bipartisan manner and make well considered and unanimous recommendations.

(The author is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha. The article is an abridged version of the talk delivered recently to a batch of senior officers of Andhra Government at Amravati, organised by AP State Legislature.)