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Making Parliament serve the people

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-07-2017 Livemint

Last week, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Urjit Patel appeared before the parliamentary standing committee on finance for a second time this year. But even on this occasion, Patel expressed his inability to apprise the committee of the total value of old notes that have returned to the central bank after the massive currency swap exercise undertaken last year. There is a great yearning among people in general, and not just the members of the parliamentary committee, to find out this information because almost everyone in the country was involved in the currency swap exercise. But the public could not watch the proceedings of Patel’s testimony before the committee; one had to rely on source-based media reports.

In contrast, the testimony of James Comey, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director who was fired by US President Donald Trump, before the Senate intelligence committee was watched live by people across the world. Portions of his testimony were carried live by some TV channels even in India. After all, the drama of the investigation into Russian links with the Trump presidential campaign—the episode which formed the context of Comey’s firing—made for sensational viewing. A few years ago, the grilling of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch by a British parliamentary committee had an audience across the globe, including in India. Certainly, a much bigger audience was interested in Patel’s testimony before the parliamentary committee.

It is important, at this point, to make a distinction between regular deliberations of the parliamentary committees and testimonies of important public officials before these committees. There is a reasonable argument against broadcasting, or even providing physical access to the public to regular meetings of the committee. Away from the gaze of the camera, the members can exchange their frank opinions without being tempted to indulge in public posturing. But there is a genuine case—as has been previously argued by Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research (goo.gl/GyDQoA)—for mounting some cameras in the room for testimonials. The process of taking evidence by the select committees in the UK—from where India derives its parliamentary system—is open to the public with very few exceptions.

Beyond the testimonials, there is enough room to push for more transparency even in regular committee meetings. The UK parliament keeps some of its select committee meetings open to the public and publishes a calendar of such meetings in advance. The meetings of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the US are open to public except in a few circumstances when the matter being discussed requires confidentiality owing to reasons of national security, prosecution of a criminal offence, trade secrets, etc. The committees of the European Union Parliament are open to the public and the proceedings are broadcast live. In South Africa, the constitution itself provides that the legislature cannot exclude the public and the media “from a sitting of a committee unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society.”

In India, there have been rare examples of a few state legislatures throwing their committee meetings open to public as a one-off case. Parliament can take the lead and allow for public participation in certain important committee meetings. This is especially warranted in cases where public interest is extraordinarily high. The decision on which meeting has to be made open can be vested with a high constitutional authority like the speaker. In other cases, the presence of cameras can indeed lead to greater histrionics and thus dampen the quality of proceedings. And therefore, the cause of transparency can be better served by releasing transcripts of the meetings after a stipulated period of time.

But these reforms will not be successful in the prevailing political culture of the country. The legislators in advanced democracies in Europe and North America are free to take their independent positions and they don’t necessarily toe the party line on each and every issue under the sun. In India, the political culture has been marred by the whip system of political parties, the anti-defection law and the lack of intra-party democracy. If individual legislators are unshackled from party lines, they will be encouraged to expend more effort in studying the matter to be discussed in committee meetings. They will also be freer to honour the views of their respective constituents rather than be bulldozed by high command fiats. The voters, in turn, can follow and vote on their representative’s legislative performance—it remains an under-appreciated concern in India that so many voters choose their legislators on parameters of local development, which is essentially the responsibility of the executive.

The German Bundestag meets in Berlin’s Reichstag building, which has a glass dome at the top. Ordinary folks are allowed to climb the glass dome and they can gaze over the legislators at work from the top. The symbolical meaning is that people are above parliament. The Indian Parliament doesn’t have such a dome but it is the principle of superiority of citizens that is more important. And Indian people deserve greater transparency. Live broadcast of testimonials before parliamentary committees is a good low-hanging fruit to start with.

Should the parliamentary committee meetings be thrown open to the public? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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