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NDA battle push with panel boycott cry

New Delhi, July 26: The NDA today pushed the frontiers of its battle against the United Progressive Alliance by deciding to boycott all parliamentary committees, including the standing committees mandated to scrutinise the government’s conduct.

The decision was taken at a meeting convened by NDA chairperson Atal Bihari Vajpayee this morning.

According to the BJP, the provocation for this unprecedented move was a statement by Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee condemning the BJP’s attitude towards Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

The other reason cited was the Manmohan Singh government’s “intolerance and arrogance” which, the BJP said, was manifest in the sacking of governors with RSS antecedents and the removal of Vajpayee’s name and photograph from signboards of the National Highways project that had been launched during the NDA regime.

The BJP had initially asked for JMM leader Sibu Soren’s head after a Ranchi court issued an arrest warrant against him. When he was dropped from the cabinet, it was believed the party would call off its agitation. But, having tasted first blood, the BJP was determined to keep up the pitch and seek the removal of other “tainted” ministers.

Asked if the NDA would rethink its stand, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said: “Let us wait for a response from the government.”

The party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, V.K. Malhotra, made it clear that Mukherjee would have to withdraw his statement publicly.

Malhotra ruled out the chance of an en masse resignation of NDA MPs as in 1989 when Opposition leaders had quit over the Bofors issue and forced then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to recommend the dissolution of Parliament and call for elections.

Asked how the boycott of the House panels, especially the standing committee, would help the Opposition — in effect this would mean the absence of a watchdog body — Malhotra said: “The only function it performs is to scrutinise the budget and bills. In any case, its recommendations are never accepted.”

Former Lok Sabha secretary-general and constitutional expert Subhash C. Kashyap, however, disagreed, saying the idea of the standing committees, which were first constituted in his time, was to have a “concurrent, contemporaneous and constant scrutiny of government action”.

The rationale for their creation was to enable a detailed discussion on subjects that could not be dealt with in the House for lack of time or constant adjournments. Initially, three committees were constituted. The number increased to 10 and when Shivraj Patil was the Speaker he raised it to 17. There are 24 standing committees at present.

Although such panels have allegedly become a source of patronage, their members have the right to ask for relevant official information, including that from privileged sources. Even if the government of the day wishes to withhold information deemed as highly-sensitive, the final decision rests with the Speaker.

The NDA’s decision will also disrupt the time-honoured convention of giving the post of chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to an Opposition member. Besides the standing committees and the PAC, almost every ministry has a consultative committee with MPs as members.

Although technically the government can carry on with its legislative business despite the boycott, the “question is one of political impact and propriety”, Kashyap said. “Conducting business in a democracy without the Opposition is unacceptable.”

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