Disregarding Parliament

The head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, Shashi Tharoor, has written to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, urging him to take action against officials of the Union government who refused to appear before the committee. The committee was to examine a number of issues on Wednesday last week — but one of those, the allegations of phone-tampering and tapping associated with the Israeli Pegasus software, was probably the most relevant to this dispute. Mr Tharoor’s letter alleged that officials from three relevant Union ministries — electronics and inf.....
The head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, Shashi Tharoor, has written to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, urging him to take action against officials of the Union government who refused to appear before the committee. The committee was to examine a number of issues on Wednesday last week — but one of those, the allegations of phone-tampering and tapping associated with the Israeli Pegasus software, was probably the most relevant to this dispute. Mr Tharoor’s letter alleged that officials from three relevant Union ministries — electronics and information technology, communications, and home affairs — had been summoned but all declared at the last minute that they would not be able to attend. These refusals, reportedly, arrived within a few minutes of each other, and it is hard to disagree with the notion that this was a co-ordinated refusal by the summoned officials. Mr Tharoor’s letter to the Speaker led to a rejoinder from one member of the parliamentary panel from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Nishikant Dubey, who declared that Mr Tharoor “is known for his eccentric nature as well as acute psychological disorder and disorientation” and asked the Speaker to disregard the committee chairman’s request.

This is a serious breach of responsibility by officials of the executive. 

Mr Dubey claims that there is a tacit agreement that mutual respect between the executive and the legislature means that officials of the former are not held in contempt of the latter. But members of the executive branch also have a duty to respond to Parliamentary summons. If this is not done — and indeed summons are ignored in a coordinated manner, as appears to be the case here — then there is no doubt that it is not just a breach of Parliamentary privilege, but indeed an attack on Constitutional foundations. The Parliamentary committees, which conduct their business away from television cameras, are a crucial part of how the executive is held to account. Debriefing by a parliamentary panel is not an exercise in political grandstanding, given that it is conducted behind closed doors. There is thus a very powerful argument to be made that the officials in question have compromised on their duty and on their oaths to uphold the Constitution.

 
The specific subject matter of the committee’s deliberation, the supposed Pegasus leaks, is indeed precisely the sort of issue that a Parliamentary panel should take up for discussion. In most other democracies, surveillance and other intelligence operations by the executive branch are held in check only by in camera supervision by a subset of legislators from all parties. This is a system that works well. There is no formal structure for such supervision in India, but there is a structure that expects if the relevant committee asks for information, it must be either provided or the relevant official must make his or her explanations for secrecy in person. This is one of the most effective mechanisms for co-ordination and accountability between these two branches of government. The Speaker cannot allow such an act to go disregarded, or Parliament’s whole purpose, to hold the government to account, will be diluted beyond measure.


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