Will They Bin the Constitution?

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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“Indira Gandhi trashed the Constitution, Congress is doing it again”

There is something of an unyielding warrior in Murli Manohar Joshi that critics even within his own party, the BJP, did not expect to see in this late phase of his political career. Despite all the controversies raging around the functioning of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament over the past month and haste with which he submitted the committee’s report on the 2G scam to the Lok Sabha Speaker, he is back as its chairman. And as stubborn as ever.

On 28 April, faced with deep divisions within the PAC on the draft report—with members aligned (some newly) with the ruling UPA demanding a vote on it—Joshi had adjourned the last PAC meeting in a huff and turned the report in to Meira Kumar. This provoked Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal to accuse Joshi of being undemocratic. Here, in a wide-ranging interview with Open, the opposition leader speaks of a Congress-led conspiracy to thwart the PAC’s work on the scam. Excerpts:

Q Do you find it ironic that UPA members in general and the Congress party in particular were saying at one point that a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is unnecessary since the PAC was looking into the 2G scam? Now they want even the PAC’s report rejected.

A This is a riddle I am not able to understand. If you look for reasons why they are doing it, some committee members said that the PAC report would destabilise the Government because there are names of ministers in the report. A member said, ‘We are not going to sit quiet and let it happen.’

Q Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has charged that by not allowing the report to be put to vote, you are trying to subvert democracy. How do you react to that?

A Bansal even said that they have thrown this report in the dustbin. Today, they are throwing a report in the dustbin because it doesn’t suit them, tomorrow they will throw away any resolution… they will even throw Supreme Court judgments into the dustbin. This is the history of the Congress party. When there was a judgment that didn’t suit Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, not only was the judgment thrown, the whole Constitution was thrown into the dustbin. This [Bansal’s] is a highly dangerous statement. It is a direct onslaught on the democratic functioning and constitutional provisions of the country. They say, ‘if you are criticising my prime minister or colleague minister, I will see to it that the report does not see the light of day.’ This is a threat.

Q Does Bansal’s saying so amount to a breach of privilege?

A We are examining the breach of parliamentary privilege… The PAC was examining the misappropriation of money given to the Government or treasury by the poor people of this country. They are waiting for money to be used for certain purposes, [like] providing them roads, electricity, education and employment. They are waiting. Parliament has sanctioned that money for certain purposes, and you are looting it. If it is pointed out that you are misappropriating it, then you are preventing the use of this money for its purpose.

The PAC is a watchdog. It is my duty as PAC chairman to chase that money. If this system is destroyed, the Government will become worse than a dictatorship. The only checks are through the House and then through these committees. If the executive—political and bureaucratic—has absolute control over finances and there is no mechanism to scrutinise it and demand explanations, then there is no democracy. Accountability is finished. They attacked the CAG. Kapil Sibal attacked the CAG. ‘Zero loss,’ this and that.

Q At different points, different ministers have spoken against the PAC. Ashwini Kumar alleged an ‘indecent haste’ in submitting the report. What do you have to say to that?

A When it was decided by the committee to finalise the report by 30 April, then it had to be done. It was open for the committee to discuss the report para by para. If it was not possible to do it, they could’ve come with a proposal that ‘till this stage we have done it and let the rest be transferred to the next committee’. That option was open. Then it would have been for the Speaker to decide. The basic question is, why did they not discuss the report para by para? Why were they ashamed or shy of it?

Q Why do you think they did not discuss it para by para?

A In my personal opinion, they did not want to discuss the facts and records and evidence that was there. You see, this report was prepared on the basis of the evidence available, either oral or records, and the documents and information given by the CAG. And then it’s finally vetted by the CAG.

Q The CAG had already, in a sense, indicted the establishment…

A So we have to see what the CAG has said, and what’s the response of these ministries to what’s before us. The ministries are given three chances. One, when the audit is done, then there is a draft report, and a final report. During that time, a ministry has the chance and authority [to offer] documentary evidence to rebut what the CAG is saying. And if the CAG persists with those observations, then it is the duty of the committee to see, in the light of those observations, the working of the ministry. When we do this and find certain lapses and irregularities, or misconduct and misinterpretation of policy, we comment on it.

Q Are you supposed to confine your probe to public spending?

A Not just that… we can say ‘This policy has led to this corruption.’ When we find that a certain misinterpretation of policy has led to lapses, we can recommend that the policy be so designed that it cannot be misconstrued. People generally feel that we only look through the paragraphs of the CAG. The PAC is independent of the CAG. All over the world, it has become a body with quasi-judicial powers.

Q Did you ever get a sense that the Prime Minister could have prevented the 2G scam?

A I can’t comment on it now. We have already submitted the report, which says his office was a mute spectator. I cannot say more. There have been lapses, and he owes the nation an explanation.

Q He admitted that there were lapses. Is that enough?

A No. Remedial action must be taken. We have given our recommendations.

Q How did the draft report get leaked?

A I have written to the Speaker saying there needs to be an inquiry.

Q There are also allegations that the report is ‘outsourced’.

A Now, the most serious thing that was said by them was that ‘the report was outsourced’. I told them, ‘This is a very serious allegation.’ The report is prepared by the Lok Sabha secretariat. We can give our inputs. Then, certain rules were cited… I told them I will go through the report and check it. Let us have a lunch recess… It turned out that the report mentioned that witnesses were examined on 15 and 16 April, whereas that did not happen. The Lok Sabha secretariat that drafts the report had the schedule of meetings with them beforehand. It was pointed out by two members on 27 April that there was an error, and it was removed. So a clerical error crept in. They listed what was given in the schedule rather than what actually happened. It  was rectified as soon as it was noticed. There is no hanky panky... It is a serious allegation. If it is true, there will be no credibility of any parliamentary report or parliamentary proceedings. But they kept saying ‘no’. When it became difficult to conduct the meeting, I adjourned it.

Q Do you think this was externally orchestrated?

A Yes, absolutely. It was being felt [so], but the proof came later. What surprised me was that on 27 April, Pawan Kumar Bansal and—I think it was—Narayansamy went to Rewati Raman Singh, and said, ‘Don’t support Joshi, be with us.’ This is something which in my opinion is unprecedented. Joshi was very fine, objective, very learned and senior, examining things objectively—[and then] suddenly he becomes a person who is biased and this and that. It is made out as if it is my report.

Is the PAC a personal matter of Joshi? They are politicising the matter, they are making it partisan.

Q Why do you think they are doing it?

A They want to erode anything that comes in their way of squandering public money. Whether it is CAG, PAC or Parliament. I will fail as an MP and chairman of the PAC if I don’t [expose this]. Who will watch the interests of the poor? They shout about the aam aadmi from rooftops, and this is what they do. The Prime Minister says ‘People’s views on corruption have changed, they want quick action.’ And when we take a quick review and suggest remedial measures, I am sorry to say, I am stopped.

At the time of the PAC meeting, there were four Congress ministers sitting in the Congress Parliamentary Party office and sending slips to Congress members in the PAC. Members were getting directions on their phones while the meetings were on.

Q Were they on the phone while the committee meeting was on?

A They would get calls and then step out to listen. You could make out from their body language what was going on. This member stepping out, and then that one.

Q Now that you have submitted your report to the Speaker, can you discuss in some detail what exactly happened in the past month or so? The UPA seems to have swung from supporting the PAC to trashing it. There have been several disruptions and controversies.

A On 4 April, some members were of the view that now that the JPC was looking into the matter, we must wind up. But there was consensus among members that the report should be finalised by month end. The next meeting was fixed for 15 and 16 April. The witnesses to be examined included the attorney general, who was then the solicitor general, the CBI director and the law secretary on 15 April. The next day, we had called the cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the Honourable Prime Minister. Suddenly, on 15 April, some members said the questions they raised had not been answered. The JPC-PAC debate had been settled by then with the Speaker’s ruling.

Till lunch hour on 15 April, they said the matter is sub judice. Then they said, ‘Why are you not calling Raja?’ After lunch, I decided to take a sense of the committee. The majority asked for witnesses to be called. The law secretary was asked to depose before the committee. When he came, some members started shouting and telling him not to depose.

Q Who were these members?

A I will not name any members. But we were able to ask some relevant questions and it was decided that no more witnesses be called. The 16 April meeting with witnesses was cancelled. It was decided to meet on 21 April, and similar disruptions took place. On 23 April, it was decided to finalise all pending matters on 28 April. But instead of coming to the pending matters and discussing the draft report, some members gave me a letter saying, ‘We do not want to discuss this report.’

Q How many members signed that letter?

A Nine members said that they did not want to discuss the report. Others said, ‘We do.’

Q Your own party, the BJP, was once unconvinced that the PAC would be able to do justice to the probe. But they are backing you now. Isn’t that ironic too?

A The party is backing the PAC’s probe that confines itself to recent developments in the telecom sector, including the allocation of 2G spectrum, so it is a very narrow subject, whereas the JPC will go into policy decisions and subsequent happenings since 1998. I can’t touch the policies.