Poor timing: standing committees' concerns
Appraisal is critical to assess not only the efficacy of legislations and policies but also the functioning of the democratic edifice itself. India’s Parliament is thus armed with several provisions and institutions to bolster such scrutiny. Standing committees, comprising parliamentarians cutting across political lines, play a crucial, supervisory role in this respect. They are expected to engage in critical discussions on issues — be they finance and expenditure, welfare policies or national security — under their jurisdiction. But are these bodies discharging their responsibilities with necessary urgency?
This query has to be raised in the light of Rahul Gandhi’s letter to the Speaker, demanding the intervention of the Speaker’s august office to ensure that the agenda of standing committees remain consistent with their roles and objectives. Mr Gandhi’s ‘dismay’ may be attributed to his recent experience of attending a meeting of a standing committee on defence during which the chairman of the panel reportedly got the chief of defence staff and the top brass of the army, navy and the air force to discuss trivial issues relating to uniforms, colours and insignia won by the forces. Astoundingly, these matters — should not the defence establishment have the freedom to decide on these issues? — were taken up at a time when India’s border with China has witnessed considerable disturbances. There have been consistent reports of China encroaching upon Indian territory; brave jawans have had to sacrifice their lives in the course of the stand-off; to add to New Delhi’s troubles, several rounds of discussions with China have neither resulted in the restoration of the status quo nor offered a resolution to the festering tensions. Inexplicably, the standing committee on defence deemed it fit to discuss uniforms with army commanders even though India’s national security remains an area of concern. Another relevant question cannot be ignored either. A standing committee is a platform to strengthen the culture of consensus between the government and the Opposition. It would be difficult to achieve such unanimity between these stakeholders of democracy if standing committees are made to deliberate on all that is inconsequential. Institutional weakness seems to be contagious in New India. The Speaker must address the concerns that have been raised in Mr Gandhi’s letter.