The JPC headache

In theory, the first week of January is a time of renewal. Politics is seldom so neat and precise. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s call to “dispel the air of despondency and cynicism”, the fact is the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is increasingly unsure of itself. It could spend the coming days much as it has the preceding ones — grappling with the idea of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to look into the telecom scandal. In many senses, this may determine the UPA’s robustness or even viability on December 31, 2011.
Why has the demand for a JPC acquired a life of its own? By shying away from it, by refusing to agree to it, the Congress and the government have, paradoxically, added to their problems. They have fuelled suspicions and conspiracy theories about why the government wants to avoid a JPC.
In good times, these conspiracy theories wouldn’t matter. However, when a government is on the mat, seemingly unable or unwilling to check swindle after swindle — Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Housing Society, the list goes on — its credibility suffers. This has happened to the Congress. Even its failure in addressing supply-side issues in food production — a factor that has contributed to high inflation — is being attributed not to political diffidence about agriculture reforms but to UPA ministers and their cronies making money in export and import of agro-products.
In this situation, the JPC is quickly becoming a touchstone for the UPA’s honesty of intention. Perhaps this is unfair. There is good reason for the Congress to oppose a JPC. It realises such a committee will become non-stop political theatre. Its members are likely to summon officials and ministers at will and whim. Leaks to the media will be rampant. A negative report — or, if that is preempted by the Congress’ political management, a dissenting minority report — could be released at a politically inopportune time, such as the eve of a big election.
For the Congress, the JPC would probably turn out to be a longer-term headache. Presence of Congress’ members of Parliament (MP) in the committee would be limited. On their part, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Left members would strive to embarrass the government. MPs from UPA allies would negotiate their way through the tenure of the JPC, adding to the Congress’ vulnerability. Above all, the evidence of wrongdoing against A. Raja, the disgraced former telecom minister, is so strong that the final JPC report will not be able to whitewash it even if it tried.
It is for such reasons that no government welcomes a JPC, particularly not in the coalition era. Unlike the past, a JPC is not easy to manipulate or pack with members of the ruling party.
Four JPCs have been set up in Indian parliamentary history: on two occasions by Congress governments (1984-1989 and 1991-96) and two occasions by the BJP-led NDA government (1999-2004). It is instructive that in all the cases, the governments went on to lose the subsequent election. Admittedly, only one of the four JPCs was of direct relevance to a voting issue. That was the JPC of 1987 that inquired into the Bofors affair, and set the stage for the 1989 election. In 1992, the second JPC was set up to assess the Harshad Mehta-stock market fraud. This became one of a series of scandals that haunted the Congress as it sought re-election in 1996.
Given this backdrop, the Congress is obviously not enthusiastic about a JPC. Nevertheless, there is a perception that it is losing the war of nerves. In the final days of December, Dr Singh offered to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) but did not agree to a JPC. The mandate of the JPC is wider. It can be given the authority to summon ministers, while the PAC has to seek the Lok Sabha Speaker’s permission to question a minister. A JPC can call in, say, serving and former law and finance ministers and ask them why they opposed the telecom minister’s policy, who they complained to, and what further action was taken or not taken. For the UPA, it can all get very messy.
However, by offering to place himself before the PAC — an unorthodox proposal many within the Congress, prominently finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, are sceptical about — Dr Singh has made a defensive move. The Opposition senses if it continues to play hardball, the government could just concede a JPC as well. It may be the only acceptable formula to rescue the Budget Session of Parliament, beginning in February.
What could happen next? In April-May 2010, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu vote for new legislative Assemblies. The Congress is an also-ran in both states. In Tamil Nadu, it will be forced to go along with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — its partner for a decade — and sink or swim with it. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress is not just looking to win but to reduce the Congress to a very, very junior ally.
By this time, the new chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithivraj Chavan, would have ended his honeymoon period — if Indian chief ministers have honeymoon periods in the first place. His attempts at salvaging the state administration would almost inevitably require him to take on his ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). That there is no love lost between Sharad Pawar, the NCP chief, and Mr Chavan is no secret.
This means if a JPC is established the Budget Session of Parliament should function smoothly; yet, by the late summer, the Congress could be busy reading ransom notes, doing backroom deals and resorting to endless fire-fighting. Both the Trinamul Congress and the NCP will demand right of way in their respective states in exchange for “enlightened cooperation” at the JPC. As for the DMK, it will want the Congress to rescue it or threaten to implicate other parties as well. If it loses the Tamil Nadu election, the DMK will be that much more desperate.
As such, within weeks of its appointment, a JPC could leave the UPA government crippled. No wonder, at the dawn of 2011, the Congress’ mood is anything but sunny.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at

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